Invitation

Reflection on John 8:21-30

“Where I am going you cannot come.” story

I’m not going to lie, the first thing I thought of when I read those words was the movie Mean Girls, and how Gretchen tells Regina George that she cannot sit with her at lunch, because she is wearing sweatpants on a Monday. I’m pretty sure that’s not what Jesus was going for, especially because table fellowship was kind of a big deal for him. But this line got me thinking: how many times have we had these words aimed at our own selves? How many times have we told them to others? How many times have we closed the door to invitation?

Do you remember as a teenager how important parties were, and whether or not you were invited? My Junior year in high school, I was the only person in my “friend group” that was not invited to the homecoming after party. Yeah, I was a bit odd back then…I guess I still kind of am, and at times, I am pretty insecure about that. But I was devastated. And it wasn’t really about the party. I felt that my personhood wasn’t valued, that my identity was not worth being accepted. That who I was just wasn’t cool enough, normal enough, good enough. And I still struggle with thoughts like these today.

Now, I’m not telling you this for pity or anything, or drawing upon some banal example of high school heartbreak to create dramatic effect. I’m just trying to grapple with what it really means to be in true communion with others.

In today’s Gospel, there seems to be a…disconnect…between Jesus and his disciples regarding invitation and identity. When they ask Jesus who he his, he replies, “What I told you from the beginning. I am the I AM.” Cue the awkward pause. The panic. That feeling you get when you are called on in class and you should know the answer but you really have no clue. I can imagine the disciples thinking: “Were we not listening closely enough? What did we miss? What don’t we understand?” And I can sense the discomfort. Especially with our political climate today, it is becoming harder and harder to bridge this gap of understanding with each other. As Mother Teresa says, the reason we have no peace is because we have forgotten that we belong to one another.

But I believe this discomfort—this pause of the disciples–is normal, and almost expected. This encounter happens only at the beginning of John, in chapter 8. Throughout the next thirteen chapters of the Gospel, the disciples come to know and understand Jesus’ narrative, and thus Jesus’ identity. In fact, it is only in the last chapter that the disciples no longer feel the need to ask Jesus who he is, for they finally KNOW he is the Lord (but when do we really ever “know” anything anyways?).

But it took them time. It was a process of doubt, of confusion, of mistakes and missed opportunities. It took healings, lectures on mountains. A life traded for silver. Even an empty tomb. It took the journey of a story, the power of a narrative.

On Saturday evening, I attended the STM Dialogues. I have to admit, hearing the story of my clown phase depicted so wonderfully on that stage was a little embarrassing, even though no one knew it was mine—buttt I guess now you do. But I was truly blown away. The way my classmates told the stories of our community was nothing short of astounding. Beautiful self-gift. Holy authenticity. And I really do mean holy. Instead of the guarded words of “Where I am going you cannot come,” these dialogues embodied a new kind of attitude: “Where I am going, I invite you to join me.”

This is how we heal. The sharing of our stories.

In his theological work, Balthasar utilizes a kenotic theology to understand the incarnation of Christ. The term “kenosis” comes from a Greek word that is translated as “emptied.” Kenosis is thus the self-emptying nature of God in the Incarnation. Balthasar argues that this theology elicits a new image of the Divine: that’s God’s power manifests itself not in holding on to what is its own, but in its abandonment.

If it is God’s nature to be self-emptying, and if we are made in the image and likeness of God, then we are beings meant to share ourselves with others. To invite each other into our respective worlds. To be brave. To speak. To listen. To be vulnerable. To be emptied, and then filled.

Who are we? We are called to merge heaven and earth, one chapter, one story at a time.

That is where we are going.

 

 

 

Déjà Vu

Noun.
a. A feeling of familiarity
b. Psychology. The illusion of having previously experienced something actually being encountered for the first time.

I haven’t really written in a year.

Oh, trust me, last semester I had papers up the wazoo. Graduate school demands hit me like a freight train. Toward the beginning of the semester, I left the library in tears because I was having a breakdown about my paper on Divine Revelation. I ran out into the parking lot and literally cursed the stars. An academic and existential crisis. Aka my entire graduate school experience thus far. Beautiful, yet taxing on many levels.

But I have gotten quite good at avoiding personal reflection.

Part of me knows why this is, part of me doesn’t. It seems to fall into the same camp of why I sometimes avoid prayer–because I’m afraid of what I will find. I won’t really get into it (it’s long and complex and that’s why I have my trusty therapist and spiritual director). But hey, the first step is recognizing there’s a problem, right?

I am currently on Spring Break, and I have really made this time my own. The past year has seemed to catch up with me during this week. All of that personal reflection I had been lacking has arrived in a tidal wave, purifying and jarring. I remember being a small child at the beach, watching the waves sway and crash before me, the foamy water approaching yet barely reaching my toes. All of a sudden, a bigger wave would come, and before I knew it, I was knee-deep in rushing, powerful water, sometimes to the point of being knocked off my feet.

And when the tide has been low for so long, sometimes you forget what water feels like.

I have found that what makes one happy is so closely tied to personal identity. You know, this would seem obvious. But for me, they have become so easy to separate. This may be a result of my lingering fear about how people view me. The fear of not being taken seriously. Maybe that’s it. The fear of really leaning into who I am and what makes me me, and then being rejected for it.

Geesh. Why couldn’t I have thought about all of this at my therapy session on Monday?

But this week, I have been reminded about those little unique sparks within me. I have sung and played guitar. I have both written and read for pleasure. I danced. I stopped and talked to the sparrows. I attended a fiction launch party at a local bookstore that filled my heart with hope and nostalgia. I have deepened friendships, and met new people (one in particular with the most beautiful, smiling blue eyes). I snuggled with my bunny, grateful to share space with my little furry friend. I sat in a cozy pub with lady-folk music dancing through the air. I bought a last-minute ticket to New York. I had my silliness validated. I have prayed in the ways that make me comfortable. I have seen and felt Love in ways I have not experienced in quite some time.

The most wonderful kind of déjà vu.

I want to be unapologetic. I want to chase questions. I want to be recklessly myself. Maybe this year, that is my Lenten promise.

It’s high tide.

 

 

Learning to “Lent”

It was just one of those days where I didn’t want to get out of bed.

The second floor of our house has been a bit chilly lately, and the idea of taking my clothes off to shower–and then walking down the hallway in just a towel–sounded horrifying. But lo, in one swift movement, I threw my comforter off, jumped out of bed, and lightly jogged to the bathroom. It was 4:50 AM, my usual shower time on a work day.

I always wake up the morning of Ash Wednesday thinking the same thing: “This year, I will do Lent right. I will try harder. I will do better.” But frankly, I don’t even know what that means anymore. Pray more? Give something better up? Get rebaptized? Become a nun? Just kidding on those last two, but you know what I mean. These 40 days are marketed as being the perfect time for transformation. But each year, I end up feeling exactly the same. Or frankly, even guiltier.

As I turned the corner on 199th street to the bus stop that morning, I noticed that the last person was getting on, and the doors were about to close. Sprinting clumsily in my heavy winter gear to the ticket dispenser, I was 99% sure that the bus would no longer be there when I looked up (which is what usually happens). But to my utter shock, the bus was still waiting. Breathing an exasperated “thank you” to the driver, I hopped on.

As I walked to my transfer, I noticed the middle-aged man with the gold tooth who often acknowledged me on our morning commute. As of late, I had been looking down whenever I saw him, walking quickly to avoid conversation. Though amicable, his comments were often a little TOO nice, and I just sometimes would rather not engage. But today, I smiled, and initiated the conversation.
“Hi!”
“Hey baby!” He replied. “You’re looking even and even more beautiful each day. Did you get your eye brows done or something?”
I laughed and said no. He started asking me how working at the school was. I was surprised he remembered, as we hadn’t spoken in months. But the people I meet here tend not to forget those things easily. The blonde white girl who is working at an all boys school in the Bronx.

As we approached the stop, I saw Jill, another one of my bus pals. She is also someone I had been avoiding lately. God bless her, but each morning we are on the bus together, she talks my ear off. After being up since 5:00 AM, sometimes I just like to use that time to listen to music, read, or honestly, sleep. It’s hard sometimes to be “on” that early in the morning. But hey, I guess that’s a self-serving statement.

We sat across from each other, and started our conversation. Today’s topic: Ash Wednesday. She’s Jewish, so she asked me to explain the whole concept of Ash Wednesday and Lent and Good Friday to her. I stumbled over my words, trying to express my cobwebbed-Catechism learnings to her (cause hey, though I’m a theology major, Catholic tradition wasn’t an area of extreme interest to me). I feel I did ok. It was actually kind of cool to talk to someone about it. Hearing myself say things out loud reminded me why Ash Wednesday and Lent are indeed so special.

The morning at school was a bit stressful. We had a half-day, so trying to cram all that I needed to get done into 3 hours was a bit hectic. I was set to give out ashes at the service after homeroom, and was looking forward to it. At the service, something Monsignor said in his homily really struck me. It was how “alms” means “giving from the heart,” and not just goods, but time. For some reason, I had always viewed almsgiving through an obligatory lens, especially in relation to money. But this definition really made me think.

ashI noticed a lot of boys cutting into my line, some of them whispering “Hi Ms. Carroll” before I gave them their ashes, which was really cute. As the sending forth song concluded, Christina, one of the staff members, turned to me and said: “You know, you’re VERY good with the kids. Very loving.” Those words hit me hard. Maybe it was the way she said it. But my heart felt very full.

After school, I was waiting for the 6 Train when the two Mormon sisters I had met 3 weeks prior walked up the steps. I had met them on the bus, and had exchanged contact information. I was excited to see them, and talk to them again. I am so fascinated by belief systems, and know very little about Mormonism. And here was a primary source! On the train, they asked me about my church, and said it was inspiring how I was living my faith. They told me about their Temple, and some of their teachings about life before and after death. They even gave me my very own Book of Mormon, and invited me to a meet-and-greet next week (which I probably will not be attending). After speaking to them, I reflected. We are definitely VERY different, but the same in that we are just trying to love others and serve God in the way we are feeling called to. It was a very fruitful conversation.

As I headed back to the subway station after my errand on Greene Street, I noticed a homeless man with the sign in the entrance, head down. Aware that my own ears had begun to go numb from the cold (as I didn’t want to get ashes on my hat), I turned around, and walked to the pop up stand a few feet away. I prayed that the beanies were only $5, because that’s all I had. After asking the vendor how much, and hearing $5, I was relieved. Upon handing him the money, he gasped, “Oh no! I forgot it’s Ash Wednesday!” I smiled and replied, “Do you want some of mine? I have extra!” Brother David had sealed me with a good one, enough to make ashes trickle down and speckle my nose.
“Really? You would…do that?” The vendor sounded caught off guard.
“Of course!” I laughed.”Let me use your sunglasses as a mirror!” Looking up at my reflection in his sunglasses (as he was quite tall), I smudged my thumb into my own ashes. I then crossed his forehead, smiling and saying “Repent and listen to the Good News.” He bowed slightly, and replied, “Thank you, sister. You have a blessed day.” Walking back to the subway entrance, I bent down to the man with the sign. “Hey,” I said, “Here.” Handing him the hat, he looked up.”Oh..thank you,” he said. As I turned around before heading underground, I saw he had put the hat snug over his head.

Maybe this Lent will be different. Not in the going-to-daily-Mass kind of different (because I won’t), not in the donating-a-bunch-of-money kind of different (because I can’t), not even in the giving-up-a-luxury kind of different (though giving up Facebook last year was probably on of the best things I have ever done for myself, and though I am going to try to give up dessert this year). Maybe it will be about being more present. More aware. Saying that first hello, giving my time even when I’m not feeling it 100%. Stepping out of my comfort zone. Reaching out. Being more patient. Seeing God shine through the cracks.

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. As I begin this Lenten journey, I am assigning myself to the mission of “giving from the heart.” Of loving more fully, even through discomfort and vulnerability. Of wandering the desert with a more open heart. Of letting love work through me, with no boundaries. Because isn’t that what Jesus did by dying on the cross?

Lent is not about success or defeat. It is about love. And love never fails.

Here’s my favorite Valentine’s Day video, released in 2015:

Six-Fifty

IMG_4824

My eyes lock on the flame that flickers too
violently before me, bursts and swells of
light exposing tired faces, a few
with pillow-creased cheeks. A prayer to above
gives way to creaky footsteps and hushed tones,
breathing life once again into the house
that waits. Latch clicks, knob turns, an escaped groan
from the heavy door startles the small mouse
who sleeps under the steps. An indigo
hue stains the cool air, bright golden rays just
spilling over the buildings, a halo
begging to guard the narrow streets. The dust
from my downward trod settles as I pause,
staring blankly at the freshly-emptied
bus stop, my timing still a hopeless cause.
The walk is not long; I turn and proceed
down the stretch of trash-lined pavement. The street
is quiet, a soothing peacefulness that
will soon prove illusionary. I greet
those who pass by with a nod, lips pressed flat
into a slight smile, hoping to evade
the “Hey baby, that’s right, you have a great
day nows,” my presence often a parade
for local gazes. Different. The weight
of where I am and what I am doing
sits softly on my heart, ever-present,
a silent nudge of remembrance cuing
fear and hope and pain and joy. This time spent
walking takes the form of a prayer, the Breath
of God made known in the sparrows who dance
lightly by my feet, and I think of death
and life and all things that happen by chance.
I approach my bus stop, and it is six
fifty. A flustered mother catches up
with her young daughter, just in time to fix
her untied shoes before handing her the
forgotten MetroCard: a reluctant
and worried letting go of something she
holds so close and dear, gone in an instant
as the day begins, something lost, yet found,
while I stand and wait on these streets profound.

Expecto Patronum

The other day, I was standing at the bus stop staring off into space in my usual morning daze when I felt someone grab my hand. Jumping back with a gasp, I snapped my head up. Next to me stood one of the high school students, *Lisa, from the Girls Academy, where I had been recruiting for Youth Group a two days prior.

“Hi, Gabbi!” she said with a smile. “My mom said I’m allowed to come to Youth Group!” I let a long breath out. I have to admit I was shocked that she was talking to me. Lisa had seemed pretty standoffish and uninterested when I visited her table at lunch; I had also seen her on the bus a few times, and, from what I gathered, seemed like one of those “tough” girls, the type you don’t cross. But here she was, shooting the breeze with me. I complimented her on her elaborate cartilage earrings, and from there we bonded over ear piercings, comparing our own and talking about ones that we wanted. She asked me what my favorite color was, and told me she would get me a matching one for Christmas. As our bus approached the stop, Lisa walked forward to greet her friend. Turning her head slightly in my direction, I could hear her say in a low voice, “Hey, she’s really nice.”

I have been thinking a lot about magic lately. I have made it my project to read the Harry Potter books all the way through, as I only made it to the fourth book as a kid. For the past month my nose has been constantly buried in the printed pages: on the bus, walking down the street, sitting at lunch. I’m hooked, high on the euphoria of childhood nostalgia and wonder. I understand why these books are an international phenomenon.

I find myself very caught by the definition of magic, which is: “the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces,” with “supernatural” meaning “a manifestation of event attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature.” Not to get all technical, but I think it’s important to really unpack this word in order really understand what’s happening here. Since becoming a Lasallian Volunteer, I believe I have been constantly experiencing moments of “magic.” I felt it when one of my students said, “Ms. Carroll, you’re like an older sister to me.” I feel it every time *John and I do our secret handshake. I feel it each Monday when I see *Sally, an elderly regular at the food pantry, as we run up to each other, squealing like little girls, wrapping each other in a hug, just because we are happy to see one another again. There have been three particularly striking moments with the students at Saint Raymond’s where I have felt this “magic.” I have made it a point to put comments on each student’s reflection paper after their service trip, to show them tangibly that I have read their work. One day, a student came to my office holding his paper, and our conversation went something like this:
“Miss, do I need to re-do my paper?”
“No, why do you ask that?”
“Well there’s marks on it, and that usually means something is wrong.”
“Oh, no! I just circled and highlighted what I liked! Positive reinforcement.” I                 grinned. He looked shocked.
“Oh. Really? Wow. No one…has ever done that for me before.” A small smile               curled on his lips. “Thanks.”

Another time, I had gotten word that one of the students I had taken on a service trip, *Kevin, received a scholarship for college. On the bottom of his reflection paper, I wrote him a note of congratulations, that I was proud of him, and that if he ever needed any help with college things, my door was open. He happened to pass by my office, and I handed him back his paper. About a minute later, I heard footsteps, and I saw Kevin appear around the corner again, smiling wide with eyes bright and shiny. He walked into my office, arm outstretched, and firmly shook my hand. “Thank you so much Ms. Carroll. Thank you.” It was so sweet, I had to hold back tears. He regularly comes into my office now, and I am always so glad to see him. In fact, as I was writing this, he came to show me his report card: straight As. I wanted to hug him.

Finally, there was an instance when I looked up to find *Zach, a Junior, standing in my doorway, a strange look on his face. When I asked him if he was alright, he asked, voice cracking, “Can I sit a minute?” After closing my door half way, he burst into tears, burying his face in his hands. We just sat there. I let him cry. I feel that young men often do not have the space to be vulnerable with their emotions like that. I knew this was a sacred moment that warranted only the utmost respect and understanding. When Zack had gathered himself, he told me how a group of Juniors had been bullying a Caucasian freshmen because of his race, and it had gotten to the point where the freshman left the school. “He was like a little brother to me,” he sniffled, “and I should have done something to stop it. I just…I just feel so guilty.” Zack burst into tears again. I could tell that this had torn him apart. I explained to him that it was normal to feel guilty, and that he should validate the emotions he was experiencing; but I also cautioned him that this was not his complete burden to carry. I told him, yes, he could have stepped in and done something, but there was only so much that he himself could have done. It was not his sole responsibility. I don’t know if what I said was the right thing, but I saw him slowly calm down in front of me. It killed me to see him in pain; it was a sticky situation. I watched with a heavy heart as he walked back down the hall; yet, something wondrous had seemed to happen in that interaction, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

I have come to believe that these have all been “magical” exchanges. At first, I thought the feeling I was experiencing was pride in my own actions; but it’s not that. I mean, yes, I’m proud of myself, but there is something greater working that is so extremely humbling. I guess that’s where the whole “forces beyond scientific understanding” part of the definition of magic comes into play. In these moments, I have been blessed by the moving of God’s Spirit, where I am merely an instrument.  And if I’ve learned anything from reading Harry Potter, it is that magic does not always entail sunshine and rainbows. For instance: in the Chamber of Secrets, Harry has a magical moment fighting the Basilisk. But it is a moment filled with both fear and faith, pain and triumph alike. Moments of magic are raw, human, vulnerable. Moments of magic happen only with trust, hope, and surrender.

In the Prisoner of Azkaban, Professor Lupin teaches Harry the Patronus Charm:

      The Patronus is a kind of positive force, a projection of the very things that the           dementor feeds upon—hope, happiness, and the desire to survive—but it cannot       feel despair, as real humans can, so the dementors can’t hurt it.

By concentrating on a happy memory and all things good, wizards and witches are able to produce this positive force that brings both protection and power. I love the symbolism behind the Patronus; I even have a stag necklace (Harry’s Patronus) that I wear to remind me of the power of Good. Not only is the Patronus a positive force, but it is also “unique to the wizard who conjures it:” just how we all have our own unique gifts, and way of interacting with God. The magic is not Harry’s own; it is a supernatural force beyond even the greatest wizard’s understanding. But he plays an active role in allowing this magic to work through him—and this is especially apparent (and necessary) when conjuring the Patronus. I can learn a lot from this. I want to continue to remember each day to allow the power of God to work through me, knowing that, despite the feelings of exhaustion, defeat, under-qualification, and stress that sometimes creep in like those dark, hooded dementors, Good always triumphs. It may not always be pretty, but it’s real.

I am a believer in this magic.

Coming to Terms (With Vulnerability)

It’s time for some real talk.

In the short 22 years that I have been alive, I feel like I have become the master “stifler.” According to Dictionary.com, the definition of “to stifle” is to “cut off, conceal, choke, or smother.” I have always been a people-pleaser. I do not like to be in the way. I painfully submit to the quiet narcissism of worrying 24/7 about what others think of me. I find myself constantly “holding back” parts of myself; and when you do that for so long, oftentimes you lose sight of what exactly you’re holding back FROM. As I become older, I am starting to realize that this technique of both living and being stems from an interior line of defense, a method of self-protection that really ends up doing quite the opposite. I know that this concept echoes the classic and hackneyed story of “Oh, I am so guarded, I’ve been hurt before, I am the way I am in order to protect myself.” But what I am talking about, at least to me, is radically different. Though being guarded with others might be an inadvertent yet prominent side effect, I am talking about protecting the self from the self.

What a weird concept.

Sometimes I feel I am afraid to know my true self: to know my limits, my passions, the facets of my identity, my communication method with the Divine. I fear giving something my all, and failing. I fear facing all this, and what I will find. The mind-boggling part of it all is that one should rejoice in and chase toward these things that ultimately complete the self. But for some reason, I am having a hard time getting to that point.

I am ultimately afraid of vulnerability.

When we graduated, Ryan Lebre gifted myself and Jacquie a book called Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. I have only read the introduction and the first chapter, but this book by Brene Brown has already hit home–it has torn me open, and has left me caught and exposed. I cannot escape the truth it is setting forth. Through reading about vulnerability, this book is causing me to wrestle with my issues with vulnerability.

Brown speaks of a state of being called Wholeheartedness. To Brown, Wholehearted living is about “engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night and thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.

Worthiness. Man, that cut me like a knife. Because does not our tendency to stifle, and ultimately our uneasiness of vulnerability, stem from our fear of not being deemed “worthy,” whether by ourselves or others?

This seems like high-school stuff. But it is more widespread and powerful than we will ever know.

Brown states that the first step of embarking on a Wholehearted and authentic life is “understanding where we are, what we’re up against, and where we need to go.” Thus, I give you a few examples of things that make me feel vulnerable, that I am “coming to terms with:”

Wearing my glasses. When I was a senior in high school, I was published in he Chicken Soup for the Soul series with a story about how I “got over” my insecurity of wearing glasses; though I have made great strides in this insecurity since, sometimes I feel like a fake. Ever since I began wearing contact lenses, I have always had trouble with them. They always hurt, they were always uncomfortable. They were, and still are, a pain, both literally and figuratively. My days and mood would be dictated by whether or not my contacts were feeling ok; if I was wearing my glasses, I would take them off my face if someone I knew started walking towards me. It was exhausting. In a time of my life where I was struggling to feel loved and accepted, my glasses seemed to be just another pothole that would hinder me from being liked. Finally, I found a brand that somewhat worked, and reveled in my college years with the freedom of being able to choose wearing the contact lenses, or wearing my glasses. I had the power, and if I was ever feeling insecure, I knew I had my contacts to fall back on. But now, for the past month, my eyes have begun acting up again. I just can’t put and keep the dang things in my eyes. I have been forced to wear my glasses consistently–and I need to come to terms that this is probably a new reality. I find myself, once again, allowing the state of my contacts to ruin my day. I allow the fact that I have to wear my glasses dictate my self-worth. I am still not yet brave enough to love myself fully or completely with my glasses, or to believe that others view me as lovable or worthy with them. I know, it sounds childish and trivial. I read this, and think “How stupid.” But my glasses make me feel extremely vulnerable.

Knowing that the limit DOES exist. Oftentimes, I feel that we base our self-worth on whether or not we can do something: run the distance, get the grade, land the job, etc. We use these “accomplishments” in order to “mark” our progress in the success of our lives and personhood. Though setting goals are great, and trying new things and succeeding being both uplifting and healthy, it becomes dangerous when we begin to define ourselves by these “markers.” I am sure most Lasallian Volunteers find this all-too-familiar: the fear of never doing enough, or not making a difference. I have found that there is such a fine line between “stepping outside your comfort zone” and being “uncomfortable” to the point of compromising the self. For me, driving the short school bus at work has caused me to wrestle with this grey zone. When I was first offered my LV position, everything seemed perfect–except for the bus part. I have never been a happy nor a confident driver, even on the low-key roads of Northern California. So the thought of driving a large vehicle filled with students in the Bronx literally set me into a nauseous panic. Nevertheless, I decided to take the position, because I wasn’t going to let that one thing hinder me from an incredible opportunity. And with that, I have already exceeded my expectations of myself by a landslide: I have driven in the Bronx, in tight, double-parked roads, parallel parked, and learned how to use my mirrors and spacing. I would never have imagined myself being that successful. It takes a lot for me to be proud of myself; and in those moments, I actually felt it. I COULD do it.

But.

Just because you CAN do something, does not necessarily mean it is the right thing for you. I have met many people who have tried horseback riding, have made strides (literally), but at the end of the day knew it just wasn’t something they were comfortable doing. They reveled in their accomplishment of trying and growing, and then made an educated decision based on what was best for who they were.

This is how I feel with the bus. The other day when I was practicing driving, I just got to a point where my body was screaming “no” so loudly that I had to listen, and pull over. I did not feel comfortable, I did not feel safe. It was something different than outside my comfort zone; it just didn’t feel right. Vulnerability so often involves us recognizing these voices, and taking the courageous step to actually listen to them. Because with the bus comes my fear of not being deemed “worthy:” I fear that my discomfort with the bus and therefore my limitations with driving it will define my work ethic, my capability to minister, and my level of desire to make a difference to those around me. It is a sucky feeling that puts one in the really difficult position of going against the intuition, something I already struggle with..

Knowing about and accepting these limitations makes me feel vulnerable. Now, this does not mean I completely refuse to drive the bus, because I know there are situations where I can. But it does mean that I must take the steps to swallow my pride and speak up when I know something is not right for myself. And accepting something that insidiously masquerades as weakness? That is hard. It is in these moments that I feel naked and exposed. But it is in these moments where we learn about ourselves, and thus cultivate Wholeheartedness–even if it makes us feel defeated at first.

The questions of faith. This is a tricky one. Anyone who knows me knows that I have been very involved in my Catholic faith from a young age. In high school, my faith was the center of my life–my relationship with it and God was strong, constant, and reliable. Or so I thought. Don’t get me wrong, my faith in middle school and high school was very much real and authentic; but I had yet to finish growing, or exploring what all of this meant. You see, when you’re young, you don’t always question things. You take things as they are given. But college turned my world upside down. It is important to recognize and emphasize that I was NOT brainwashed through my classes and experiences; they simply gave me, for the first time, freedom to learn and grow into my own beliefs. I always say that being a Theology major in college has been the biggest blessing and biggest curse for my faith. On one hand, my classes revealed to me a God who has liberated oppressed peoples throughout all of human history, a God who lifts up the lowly, a God who loves beyond all boundaries. I was once again set on fire to work for social justice, and imitate the kind of life Christ led. Yet, on the other hand, I learned of the corruption of the Church I thought I knew, and became baffled and confused about the seeming discrepancies between some Church doctrine and the message of the Gospel. For the first time in my life, I found myself caught in a place where some of my deep convictions about God and the world did not necessarily line up with some of the beliefs of the Church. That tore me apart, and I am still recovering from that collateral damage.

Something once so stable in my life had, and has, been weakened. I have emerged from all my theological training with so much knowledge and new insight–but now I have a difficult time looking at religion without impressing a critical, academic lens upon it. I find myself standing on a fragile branch with my faith–and that makes me feel vulnerable. Instead of embracing an embarking upon a new journey of faith (for we all know that a healthy faith is indeed dynamic), I find myself shutting it out completely. I fear the questions and ambiguity (*cough* vulnerability) and just choose “not to deal with it.” I find myself avoiding prayer because either a) I think that the efforts are pointless, or b) I am afraid of what I will hear. And I think both of these fears, once again, stem from the fear of vulnerability. In order to live an authentic life with an authentic self, I need to come to terms with being vulnerable in my faith. I am slowly coming to terms with the fact that I just can’t do this all on my own, that my human efforts can only get me so far. That I am NOT the one in power. That I need God, and that I need to figure out how to reach Him/Her again. My fumes have run out. And now I am being forced to be vulnerable.

These are only a few things in my life that I am working towards coming to terms with (and I have yet to talk about my issues with body image, my questions surrounding sexuality, and my fear of mortality. But those topics are for another day). Though I am still on a bumpy road in these “coming to terms,” I do know my destination: to live a Wholehearted life with an authentic self, one that does not have to be “qualified,” but one that is free to just be. I preach this so often to others, but need to believe it for myself. I crave the self-recognition that I am worthy and enough. Though outside affirmations of this are nice, I know that true progress must start within myself.

So where am I going with all of this? Last weekend, I had the opportunity to see Audrey Assad perform live. It was a simple show, yet so incredibly beautiful, raw, and transformative. I feel that I came out of that theater a different person; I just couldn’t explain it. I felt whole. I felt myself. I felt loved. I felt vulnerable, but in an exquisite way, as Brene Brown puts it. Here are some lyrics from one of Audrey’s songs from her latest album:

From the love of my own comfort
From the fear of having nothing
From a life of worldly passions
Deliver me, O God
From the need to be understood
From the need to be accepted
From the fear of being lonely
Deliver me, O God
And I shall not want, I shall not want
When I taste your goodness I shall not want

This song is particularly striking to me. The idea of letting go of these “needs and fears” screams vulnerability. But once we recognize our inherent worth as children of God, created with the reason and purpose to be exactly who we are, we are delivered from all of these things that we cling to in order to feel like our existence is worthy of mattering. We no longer will feel the need to “stifle.” We are enough–full stop. And with that self realization, we grant ourselves permission to really know ourselves as God knows us.

And what is more authentic than that?

*If you made it all the way through this novel of a blog post, thank you, and congratulations.

Love Moves Slow

So much has happened in the past four weeks…this whole “waiting a month to write” is a habit I need to not continue; the memories become blurred and muddled and confusing, and we cannot have that!

Taken from the High Line

Taken from the High Line

The week of August 11th, we visited the Bronx Zoo, which was incredible. I was able to see the zebras and lemurs, which are my favorites! I ALMOST bought a stuffed animal, which I always do, but was for once in my life able to restrain myself. My mother was flabbergasted. The following day, Jacquie, Matt and I walked the High Line, a linear park in Manhattan built on an elevated section of a disused New York Central Railroad spur. It was a BEAUTIFUL day. We also were able to visit Chelsea Market, which reminded me a lot of an enclosed urban shopping area I visited while in Cork, Ireland. We then walked over to Times Square, and let me tell you, it was pretty overwhelming. The buildings were huge, there were so many people, and it just seemed so surreal: you always see this location in the movies, and it’s hard to believe you could be standing in the exact same spot.

Most of the DENA LVs at Scarborough State Beach, Rhode Island

Most of the DENA LVs at Scarborough State Beach, Rhode Island

A few weeks back, we were able to visit the community in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. It was so incredible to see everyone again. It felt like home. On the Sunday, we cooked a huge breakfast for all (was it 16?) of us. I wish I would have snapped a picture of all of us at the table. Because that’s what community looked like. That same day, we went to Scarborough State Beach, and all swam in the Atlantic Ocean. I cannot recall the last time I was able to swim in ANY ocean. You know those moments where you just feel so free and happy that you know God has to exist? It was a moment like that: simple, raw, infinite, life-living. When people talk about that “living water,” they sure do mean it.
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My new guitar arrived on the 14th. Playing music is such a large part of who I am, and not having that outlet in such a new and unfamiliar place just felt wrong to me. When I opened the package and took the guitar out, I cried. I’m very serious. When you are reunited with something that makes you, “you,” it’s a pretty powerful thing.

I was also able to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, which was beautiful. Maddie stayed with us for a week before moving to her community in Brooklyn, and it was so nice to have her around! I went to a silent disco in Queens, snuggled a Beagle puppy in a Bronx pet store, and bought a betta fish now named “Arthur.” Little moments and memories, but ones that matter.

And then there was last week.

Brother Richard and I had been out practicing driving the bus; I have become SO much more confident. I definitely still need to practice a lot, but I never imagined I would be at this level of comfort so soon. On our way back from practicing parallel parking, it came to our attention that the bus had a flat tire. So, we dropped it off at the auto shop, and began the short walk back to school.

Ever since a horrible ankle accident at the end of my sophomore year put me in physical therapy for 3 months of the summer, I have had a recurring injury that seems to take place every 12-16 months or so. It happens randomly, for no reason; it doesn’t matter what shoes I’m wearing or what I’m doing. One time, I was just trying to be a good citizen and do my laundry, missed a step, and after crashing to the pavement headfirst, realized my ankle was the size of a softball. I was on crutches for two weeks, and it took a good two months to feel normal again. These injuries are more frustrating than anything for me. I hate not being able to get around at the pace I want, not being able to workout, not being able to be mobile. It’s a setback, an inconvenience, and something I fear every time I leave the house.

Walking back to school I stepped wrong. I fell. And I hit the ground, HARD.

Everyone turned and stared but didn’t move. My metal Contigo water bottle rolled loudly into the street. I thought I had maybe caught myself, and prevented the level of damage. I laid there on the sidewalk, my backpack still attached, and waited.

I had done it again.

God bless Brother Richard, who went into extreme Dad-mode, rushing back to his community to get ice and the car. He even bought me crutches. The man is a saint, I tell you. I am so lucky to have him by my side during this year ahead.

I didn’t cry until I was alone in the car. The pain was almost unbearable. A million thoughts raced through my head: “How could this happen here? How will I work out? Will I gain weight? Will I still be able to do the LV Run, have I been training for nothing? How will I get to school next week? How am I supposed to get to the bus stop? To the subway? Around in general? This is NYC, this is not the city to have a hurt foot in.” Kudos to both my mother and Veronica for listening to be sob on the phone.

But then I remembered the man who I sat next to on the bus a week prior. He had no legs. He maneuvered his wheelchair with ease and with a smile on his face, buckling it into the disabled section of the bus. He adapted, moved on, and lived. This memory immediately filled me with shame–shame that I, someone with two legs, could barely handle the thought of being immobile for a month or so. But this man also inspired me: inspired me to adapt, to move forward, to play my dealt hand, because any hand at all should be viewed as a gift. I had to slow down, and sometimes I’m really bad at that. I get so caught up in the little details, I miss big pictures. I’m so focused on getting from here to there, and what comes next, that I fail to focus on the here and now. I feel like this injury always seems to happen when God wants me to slow down; at least, that’s how I interpret it.

Ironically enough, I had signed up (prior to my injury) for evening prayer on the day where Jesus has to take a break from the craziness of teaching the crowds, where he “goes away to a deserted place.” For prayer, I used Audrey Assad’s song, “Slow,” for reflection. The last lines of the song are as follows:

“I move slow, because You move slow. Love moves slow.” 

As school begins next week, I want to constantly remind myself of these words. To slow down, to take everything in, to be present in the moments. The morning after that prayer, as I was hobbling down the sidewalk on my crutches to get to the bus stop, a little boy’s basketball escaped him and rolled to my feet. Instead of handing it gently back to him with a quick smile and hobbling on my merry way, like I would have any other day, I put both crutches in one hand, picked up the basketball, and started dribbling around him. He shrieked with glee. His mother’s eyes met mine, and they seemed grateful. “Thank you!” she called after me as I continued to the bus stop. But really, it was I who was thankful.

Love moves slow.

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Planes, Trains, & Automobiles

What a week.

Has it really only been a week? I feel like I have been living in New York for a year already! Sure my sense of direction is still pretty horrible (more on that later), but I am surprised how relatively easy it has been to adapt. I need to start carrying a notebook with me wherever I go, because I am having a difficult time remembering all that we have done in such a short amount of time.

Soul food: chicken, collard greens, and gumbo

Soul food: chicken, collard greens, and gumbo

Last weekend, Jacquie, Matt and I adventured to Arthur Avenue just to look around; I cannot WAIT to go back and try all the yummy Italian goodies! Later in the week we met up with Katie and Bryana–two former LVs at Bedford Park–in Harlem to get soul food for dinner. I also was able to experience Dunkin Donuts for the first time! The diversity of food culture here is so overwhelming…but in a good way! On any given street there has to be at least 4-5 places to eat. Insane. I want all the things.

My first community meal!

My first community meal!

On Sunday, I cooked my first meal for the community, plus guests, a total of 9 people. In college, I ate very simply; it was either something from the dining hall, or eggs, canned soup, beans and tuna, or rice and salad made in my suite. And for one person. Evidently, I was so nervous. You would think that after watching my mom, dad, and Nonni cook so seamlessly over the years I would have a little more confidence. Seriously, bless Jacquie for being so patient helping me, and putting up with my anxiety. I decided to make spicy sausage skillet pasta with Parmesan baked zucchini and a summer salad. Thank the cooking gods that it turned out perfect. I don’t know what I did to deserve the good energy that was sent my way, but it was such a relief and an accomplishment.

View from the ferry

View from the ferry

On Tuesday, we took the ferry to Staten Island, got street food, and visited the 9/11 memorial. Jacquie and I had read online that there was a farmer’s market near the ferry building, so we definitely wanted to check that out. Unfortunately, the farmers market was a bit smaller than we expected; but we found a booth with home-made hard apple cider! One thing that I have found during my week here is that there is basically nowhere to go to the bathroom in the city, which is a major problem for me–anyone who knows me knows that I am the one you have to pull the car over for on roadtrips. So I have been submitting to buying the $1.62 icecreams at Burger King in order to take my little bathroom breaks.

The ferry ride was gorgeous; it’s crazy how I grew up seeing so many pictures of the Statue of Liberty, and now am able to see it in person. The 9/11 memorial was also extremely moving. It still haunts me how that horrific event happened in this very city, and how many lives were affected by it. The side chapel in our community is named after a young man who died from the attacks. Standing at the site of the south tower was extremely humbling.

Harriman State Park

Harriman State Park

So far I have been staying pretty active; we live near a reservoir, and there is a nice 3.75/4 mile loop to run starting from the community house. Exercising is definitely a critical aspect of my self-care needs, so it has been really uplifting and refreshing to get outside and run. I plan on running the 10k for our LV run on Roosevelt Island in October, so it’s been good training! Speaking of exercise, after a 5:00 AM wake-up call, we were able to go on an 8-mile hike (more like a climb) with Brother Michael in Harriman State Park on Thursday, about an hour from the Bronx. It was beautiful. The lakes, trees, landscape and mountains reminded me so much of Northern California. I think I had the false impression in my mind that there would be no trees or open space in New York, that I was moving to a place where hiking and spending time in nature would be impossible. Boy, was I wrong. Thursday was a very happy day.

On Saturday, Jacquie, Matt, Ron Jovi (another prior Bedford LV) and myself drove to meet the Brothers in New Jersey for a celebration of DENA’s jubilarians. It was a super fun roadtrip, and it was so incredible to hear the stories of these men who have dedicated their lives to serving God and the poor through education. The Lasallian community has become so dear to my heart, and a part of who I am. It just feels “right” being with these people. And it is a true gift to be able to feel that way. I was also able to speak with some of my coworkers at Saint Raymond’s who were nothing but kind, enthusiastic, and welcoming. It made me excited for the school year to start.

Sharing with the Snapchat world my bad sense of direction

Sharing with the Snapchat world my bad sense of direction

But today seemed to be the most unique experience thus far. I woke up, ran the reservoir, got ready, and then headed out to the bus stop. I am the kind of person who learns by doing, so I’m trying to practice my bus route to the school and parish as much as I can before the academic year begins. Today was my first attempt. On my way to the school, I got off on the wrong stop, had to turn around and backtrack, and then finally found my transfer. From there, I was golden. But going back home, I got on the right bus going the WRONG direction. After coming to this realization, I hopped off the next stop, and stared blankly down the road. My phone was at 20% battery, I had no idea where I was going, and was getting hangry. To my delight I had got off right by a Chinese take-out place. With chicken and broccoli in hand, I wandered aimlessly down the street to find my transfer stop. Turning the corner, I saw my bus, about to leave. Luckily the driver saw me running, and re-opened the doors. I must have looked pretty pathetic and exasperated, because he smiled, said “Hop on, sister,” and didn’t even make me pay. What a guy. I made it home, safe and sound, even though it took me twice as long as it should have. It’s about winning small battles, right?

I had one of those “time standing still moments” at the beginning of Mass today. Walking into Saint Raymond’s, I was greeted by *Cara Mae, one of the helpers at youth group. Though elderly, this woman lights up a room. From the short interactions I have had with her so far, I can tell she has a heart of gold. She is also battling cancer; from the last time I saw her, she has lost weight and her hair, and the chemo is taking a toll on her body. Yet, she was still smiling wide. Reminding her of who I was, her jaw dropped, and she wrapped me in one of the tightest hugs I have ever experienced. How did she have the strength to do that?

“We are so happy you are here.”

Reality is beginning to set in: the fact that I’m here, what I am about to take on, the weight of my responsibility and possible impact, the high stakes, the challenges and uncertainty I will face, the possible difference I could make–or not make. There was power in that hug, in those words, in that moment. And to speak truth? It was jarring.

I sometimes wonder how I got to this point, and what brought me here. I honestly feel frighteningly incompetent: how has all of this been entrusted to me? Am I even capable of this? I guess I just have to remember that everyone has different modes of transportation. I may get lost, but I’ll get there. Something has brought me here. This is my stop, this is my transfer. And I know I will slowly learn to drive.

*Name changed to protect privacy

The Firefly

I cannot believe how fast Orientation went by. Leaving at 2:00 AM to make my 5:35 AM flight at SFO, I was both excited and nervous on the drive down. My mind reeled whether or not I had forgotten anything important; I probably checked for my ID three times. After checking in my two bags and saying a quick but heartfelt goodbye to my parents, I made it through security, and met up with Mari and Jacquie. As our flight took off, I listened to “Charlie’s Last Letter” from the Perks of Being a Wallflower soundtrack; it’s a good song for transitions. It gives me confidence and hope.

After an overall smooth flight, we touched down in Chicago. Gathering our bags, we headed out to ground transportation #4, and waited. After a while, two young women and a young man approached us. One of the girls said, “Hey, this may be out of left field, but are you all LVs?” The comradery and comfortability was instant, which set the tone for the rest of our week. After being transported to Lewis University in Romeoville, we were greeted by enthusiastic second-years, who made us feel so at home. The day was filled with meeting new people, playing fun icebreakers, and the stark reality that our year of service was finally here. I know that I am definitely still in denial.

Photo courtesy of Chris Swain

Photo courtesy of Chris Swain

Now, I could go into immense detail about all of the things we did during Orientation; but if I chose to do so, this post would never end. From 8:00 AM to 11:00 PM each day, we were go-go-going. We had workshops and seminars on professionalism, peace and justice, vocations, support networks, diversity and cultural awareness, skills classes that were catered to our particular placement positions, and more. On our last day, I was able to experience Chicago for the first time, which was a blast! On the second full day, our cohort went to a high ropes course in Wisconsin. It was so amazing to see everyone supporting one another, even though we had all basically just met. I was terrified to finish climbing the rock wall to get to the zipline, and had frozen about half way up; if Lindsey hadn’t encouraged me, I would not have been able to finish, and would not have had the experience of physical and mental growth that I did.

Photo courtesy of Julia T.

Photo courtesy of Julia T.

And this speaks to the people of the Lasallian 2015-2016 cohort, which I cannot say enough of. When I was in 7th grade, I found a beautiful community at Camp RAD, a week-long retreat sponsored by our Diocese. I had yet to find something equal to this community until I met my cohort. There is something extremely special and awe-inspiring about these incredible people: their individuality, inclusiveness, open hearts, kindness, intentionality, passion for service and justice, and desire to do good, and be more. Relationships formed like wildfire; the care and connections were instant. We just FIT. And for the first time in a long time, I felt safe, loved for who I am, and at home. Though we only knew one another for less than 10 days, those goodbyes have been some of the hardest yet.

Photo courtesy of Kacie K.

Photo courtesy of Kacie K.

One image I find myself continuing to ruminate on from Orientation is that of the fireflies. Walking back to the main room on our first evening, I was initially almost knocked off my feet. In the distance, I saw golden lights floating and flickering on and off, like little stars dancing above the grass. “Are those FIREFLIES?” I shouted like a little kid, running out on the field. The Midwesterners chuckled, smiled, and rolled their eyes. I was filled with unrestrained, raw wonder; and I feel that we fail to chase, and experience this, enough.

I dedicate this year to the firefly. I want to chase after what I am passionate about. I want to continue to allow myself to be surprised, and to experience each day and moment for what they are. I want to remember that the light will flicker on and off this year, and that this is ok. I want to remember the beautiful people in my cohort and at home who will continue to shed light on my soul, service experience, and life.

“Remember we’re lost together, remember we’re the same. We hold the burning rhythm in our hearts, we hold the flame. We’re gonna trip the light, we’re gonna break the night. And we’ll see with new eyes when we trip the light.”
-Alicia Lemke

Prologue

Welcome to my blog! I am looking forward to once again being able to write in a non-academic setting, and to explore my thoughts and experiences throughout this upcoming adventure. Here I will be documenting my time as a Lasallian Volunteer in the Bronx of New York. I have been blessed with the support of so many people during this new transition, and am hoping to provide a resource for anyone who is interested to stay updated! So here is some preliminary information about my year:

After a lengthy application process, I have been called to serve at Saint Raymond’s High School for Boys as the Christian Service Coordinator. During the school year, I will be responsible for fostering and facilitating the service program for the students, which is part of the school’s curriculum. This includes transporting and accompanying the boys to different service sites in the Bronx, reading and grading reflection papers, keeping the boys’ hours organized, and much more that I will be informed about upon my arrival and settling in! I also will serve as the youth minister at Saint Raymond’s parish, and will run the high school youth group each Sunday. As for my residency, I will be living in a Christian Brothers community with 5 Brothers and 3-4 other Lasallian Volunteers. I felt nothing but love, support, and acceptance when I visited back in April, and am really looking forward to building relationships and growing with my community. On Wednesday, I will be flying to Chicago for a nine-day orientation with the rest of my cohort at Lewis University; from there, I head straight to New York on the 31st. I am in the process of packing, which is an adventure in itself!

I am both humbled and astounded by the overwhelming amount of love, care, encouragement, and support I have received over these past few months, both in my graduation from Saint Mary’s and my decision to serve as a Lasallian Volunteer. I want to thank my parents especially, who have selflessly offered their time, sacrifice, and hearts to help get me where I am today. They both serve as examples of who and what I wish to be.

For those of you who will be following my musings, thank you for your interest and for listening to my reflections about what should be a year of growth, pain, joy, faith, revelation, and transformation. Let’s see what is in store!

Love always,

Gabriella

Information about Lasallian Volunteers found here:

http://www.lasallianvolunteers.org

Saint Raymond’s High School for Boys

http://www.straymondhighschool.org