Little Things With Great Love in a Culture Preoccupied with Grand Achievements

As a recently retired Art Teacher at a Catholic Elementary School, I find myself now in a familiar, yet very different work environment, and it has made me contemplate & question my role as an Adrian Dominican Associate. Is being an Associate still important to me, and does it make a difference in my life and the lives of others?

I am now pursuing my own art career, but (until I actually start making a steady income from my art) I am waitressing again at a local restaurant. It is, after all, called the “service/hospitality industry” and are we not all called to a life of service as Christians? The truth is, I actually enjoy the hospitality business, and I absolutely love my boss and co-workers! I enjoy taking care of our guests and being a part of their dining experience here on the Atlantic Ocean.

But here’s what I’ve noticed…. First, my co-workers (or, as we say “team members” because our philosophy is not “the Body of Christ” but “members of a team” which essentially works like a “body” anyway, right?), have recognized something joyful in me. Each shift for me begins with me greeting the kitchen staff with a hearty “Hello, Kitchen!!!” And they all respond, “Hello, Maria!” We laugh and smile at one another, and know that all is well. I’ve occasionally come into work grieving a loss, and they’ve noticed. I failed to greet them with joy, and they expressed concerned. It lifts my own spirits when I muster the energy to cry out “Hello, Kitchen!”

I’ve rediscovered that in the “secular world” Christ’s presence is needed even more than in our churches and Catholic Schools. THIS is part of my new ministry as an Adrian Dominican Associate: To be Christ’s presence in the everyday life of everyone I meet!

Recently I found myself a bit tongue-tied and at a loss for words (imagine that!). I was asked by another Associate from another Order, “What do you do to support and build up our Holy Mother Church?” Now, I am a woman of simplicity and a great admirer of St. Therese Lisieux (do little things with great love), so… I was caught off-guard by leading tone of this question.

My mediocre response was “I sing in my church’s Choir.” Argh!!!! Although I love this ministry, it isn’t ALL I do, and it certainly isn’t what I do on a daily basis.

After a few days of reflection and re-evaluation I’ve come to realize that how I reflect and live out the Body of Christ in the world is my ministry. I do that in my interactions with those I encounter every day. Once it was my students, parents, fellow teachers and administrators; now it is my co-workers, guests, chefs, dishwashers, and managers. This ministry makes me smile in new and unexpected ways. Guests have commented, “You’re so joyful!” Co-workers come to me for hugs when they are upset. Several co-workers are quite adamant that “Maria can’t work Sunday’s! She has to be in church praying for the rest of us!” [This one makes me laugh the most!]

It makes me wonder; if we are all God’s children, and Jesus calls us to love one another, how does the Spirit move us in spreading God’s love in the little things? “Holy Mother Church” doesn’t need my help, but I can certainly be Jesus’ hands and feet in serving the immediate spiritual and emotional needs of my brothers and sisters wherever they are.

So, is being an Associate still necessary and relevant in my life outside “traditional” ministries? Absolutely! And, I think, even more so.

A Pain of 1,000 Cuts

I’ve been away from blogging since Christmas for a simple reason; I just haven’t had the time and my focus is now on what it should’ve been on all along…. MY ART!

Certainly there has been plenty to write about and comment on, but my time this past Spring Semester was consumed with teaching, packing, planning, moving, and taking an online business course for artists.  I felt that one of my recent breakthroughs in my course work just needed to be shared here.  This week I revisited one of my earlier assignments where I had to explore my emotions.  I suddenly realized that one of my unexplored pains is critical to my artwork and my mission as an artist, so I did a bit more digging.  My “ah-ha” moment will also (hopefully) shine a light on some of the hateful, hurtful, and belittling rhetoric that seems to be so prevalent and tolerated by many in today’s society.

For anyone who does not know me personally, I am 4′ 10″.

People calling me shorty, shrimp, pee-wee, tiny tot, smurf, little-one, or any number of demeaning terms that point out the obvious in a hurtful way is painful and unwelcome.  This hurtful behavior didn’t just happen once or twice as a child or even just once or twice as an adult.  This is what I call a “pain of 1,000 cuts and jabs.”  It happens on a regular basis, almost weekly, and it still goes on.  And, no, folks!  It’s not ok, and it’s not funny!  [Sorry, Randy Newman, no matter what your intention the lyric “short people got no reason to live” is not satirical, it’s sick & offensive!  Love your work; hate this song!]

Sure, I’ve developed a thick skin about it, and I’m even guilty of making the jokes first to avoid the onslaught that I anticipate to be inevitable in many situations.  I’ve always figured that if I can make the best “short jokes” first, then I won’t have to listen to the lamest short jokes from anyone else.  Well, that attitude & practice stops today!

Part of who I’ve become as both a person and an artist is because of my tiny stature.  At 4’10” I’ve often been teased and been made to feel unimportant, overlooked, insignificant, and ignored.  This has made me feel a bit angry & defiant, too.  In most cases, however, my anger has been channeled into something positive.  My anger & defiance has led me to feel strongly about injustices in our world which then leads me to advocate for others and change the way people see these injustices.  It is this feeling of insignificance that makes me notice the little things in our fragile world, and then paint them in important, noticeable, and unusual ways.

This breakthrough may indeed be the very essence of my mission as an artist, but for now I am concerned about what this means for our common humanity.

Bottom line:  Please, stop and think before saying something that may hurt another person.  It’s not that hard.  Just walk a mile in someone else’s shoes before you verbalize that thought that just flashed across your mind, and then ask yourself, “How would I feel if someone said this to me while I was feeling vulnerable?”

No matter what makes us unique, I believe that we are all created in the image and likeness of God, “Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26).  And (my favorite!) “I praise you [God], because I am wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14) pretty much sums it all up for me.

Drones, War, Peace, & American Democracy

I’ve just spent some time reading & reflecting on the endless supply of information, facts, fiction, opinions, & reality about the increased use of US drone missile attacks under the Obama Administration.  I am inspired by Pax Christi’s recent postings, especially the two articles by Shelley Douglass and Nick Mele in the Inter-community Peace & Justice quarterly edition of AMOS (A Matter of Spirit publication).  I am inspired, and yet I am still left with a feeling of hopelessness.  The more we make technological advances, the more our privacy & freedoms are placed on the chopping block.  We proclaim that we live in a free & democratic society (US), but clearly we do not.  Not by a long shot!  Not when our elected officials are making back-room-deals with lobbyists, corporations, or the highest bidder. Not when the president & congress change the rules or re-interpret the Constitution to suit their interests & then casually explain it away in the name of “national security” when their misdeeds are exposed.  I’m not paranoid, Verizon, Google, NSA, &/or POTUS.  I’m not!  BUT!  When you read this, please understand that I’m just an ordinary person who wants the same Human Rights that everyone else does.  Everyone means EVERYONE in the whole world, not just a hand-picked few!

I have heard horror stories on the radio, read about them on the internet and in magazines…. People who question their governments and the  “status quo”, people who work for peace & justice, and then suddenly find themselves threatened, out of a job, imprisoned, abducted, tortured, exiled, or simply silenced because they dare to speak truth to power.  But who really has the power?  The government? Homeland Security?  The CIA or the FBI?  We fool ourselves on both sides; those in government & we the people. You remember them, don’t you?  We…. The people?

While watching re-runs of old sit-coms the other night I was struck with an “Ah-ha!” moment.  The topics haven’t changed in 40 or 60 years (yes, I’m that old!).  Today’s sit-coms, soap-operas, & TV-dramas still tackle the same ol’ issues of politics, sex, religion, racism, & relationships.  The real difference is technology & the transparency of the issues.  Think about it.  40-60 years ago it took a whole lot of grassroots action & many brave ordinary citizens to stand up to the government to get Civil Rights passed into law.  It took a lot of angry mothers to stand up to government to win justice for families suffering from the effects of deadly contaminants at Love Canal.   Many of these movements remained active for many years before they saw the change that needed to happen.  Today all you need is YouTube, FaceBook, Twitter,, & the “morning/late-night TV circuit” appearances for anything to go “viral.”  Then all you have to do is put down your Latte & click “sign the petition”!  No, the issues haven’t changed, just our means of communication & our “monkey-sphere” (funny perspective, but I have more faith in humanity than that).

I think social media is an important tool in addressing social justice issues, but it still needs to be linked to actions.  Most of us have become “arm-chair-activist” who spend time pointing & clicking & forwarding petitions & links, which is good & totally necessary, but we need to do more, and I believe most of us have the capacity to care about more than just 150 other people (or monkeys).  So, “We the people” ultimately have the power, we just forget about that every so often.  We forget that democracy was built on the belief in certain unalienable rights, and when we forget, we relinquish our freedoms, our rights, our security, and our power.  We forget that our elected officials derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.”  In other words, they work for us!

We give consent without thinking about it in today’s technology saturated environment, and then we’re outraged by what our government is doing when someone leaks something to the press about an infringement of our rights, freedoms, or privacy.  In today’s instant world of media & technology, nothing much is private anymore, but that doesn’t mean we should relinquish our freedoms and our privacy.  We just maybe have to rethink & reevaluate what  our expectations are & determine if they are realistic or not.

Living Fully in the Real World

Tuesday’s meditation from the CAC (Center for Action & Contemplation) struck a chord with me.  [Click the link & then the “subscribe” link to get these free daily meditations.]  Fr. Richard Rohr’s writings are so often just what I need to hear, just what I need to be reminded of, and just what I need to help keep me focused on what matters most & how to just be in the world.  So here’s the part that hit me Tuesday:

“How do we find what is supposedly already there?  How do we awaken our deepest & most profound selves? By praying & meditating?  By more silence, solitude, & sacraments?  Yes to all, but the most important way is to ‘live & fully accept our reality.’  This solution sounds so simple & innocuous that most of us fabricate all kinds of religious trappings to avoid taking up our own inglorious, mundane, & ever-present cross.”

To “live & fully accept our reality” is something I think most of us either try to avoid or simply don’t understand.  As a middle-aged (grrr!  I really just wrote that!) art teacher at a Catholic school in the USA, what is my reality?  What is yours?  If the “American dream” is to live a “better” life style than our parents did then it will always be just that; a dream!  Where’s the reality?  This American Dream that everyone talks about whenever they feel the urge to act like a “real ‘Merican” is (for the vast majority of us) unattainable at best, & unsustainable at worst.  Here’s the reality:  For most of us our lives are mundane, inglorious, & full of crosses to bear.  Reality sucks!  Or does it?

To “live & fully accept our reality”….  What does that look like?  How does that feel, & will that awaken something profound in me?  What will I find there?

These last few weeks have been full of these kinds of questions, and I’ve been finding some answers, AND some more questions!  My reality:  I am a teacher at a mundane school in a mediocre town in an average state in a country riddled with problems.  I deal with the “first world” problems & dramas of children, teachers, & parents everyday.  Personally I have my own “first world” problems, too, but I try not to burden my friends with them!  So!  My reality is pretty mundane.  So is everyone else’s.  Again, reality sucks!  Or does it?

Last week I had a conversation with a little boy who, just like the rest of us, is trying to fit in & feel special.  I used to jokingly say to kids “You’re only special to your mother!”  True enough; we can’t all be so special to warrant more than 15 minutes of fame in any given year, but that’s what we want.  We all want to feel special, like we matter, like what we do is important and meaningful, yet most of us feel unimportant & like nothing matters anymore.  I suspect our technological advancements in the last 50-100 years have added to this sense of worthlessness.  We are bombarded 24/7 with media that keeps us searching outside of ourselves for stuff to make us feel special.  The information we have is no longer limited to the few hundred or few thousand individuals in our corner of the world.  We are inundated with billions of stories, dramas, tragedies, & triumphs from all over the globe!  It’s staggering!!!  But, we can’t all be celebrities, and we can’t all have carefree lifestyles, we can’t all be heroes or saints.  Or can we?

I am inspired by articulate people, because I don’t think that I am.  I am inspired by people who turn their visions into realities, because I don’t think that I can.  I am moved by visionaries, mystics, & poets who write such eloquent thoughts, because I don’t think I have such thoughts.  I am touched by the courage of people who struggle to make change for good, because I think I am too small to be useful.  I sit in awe of the accomplishments of others, because I think that I have done nothing remarkable.

In all honest humility, I have concluded that I am wrong, and in doing so, I have made a conscious decision to live more fully in my mundane reality!  This is very freeing! In these last few weeks I have become a part of a new group of activists (TCFF, Treasure Coast Fair Food...there are some amazing people with a wealth of experience & energy in this group!) working in support of the CIW (Coalition of Immokolee Workers).  I found the courage to propose a plan for a school garden, and it’s been accepted!  I have raised two beautiful children who also lead rather  mundane lives (so proud!)!  And today I made a classroom full of children feel loved and valued, and tomorrow I intend to do the same!

By accepting and fully embracing my very average, mundane reality I can live in it more fully, freely, & joyfully.  I can actively participate in the good it has to offer, & I can actively work to change what is unjust.  It is within this very real, very ordinary and mundane corner of the world where I have found I am most at peace.

Ah! Perspective!

Sunday breakfast after mass at our favourite restaurant is a tradition in my family.  I really enjoy sitting down once a week to catch-up with family & friends, but since my mother began taking care of my 96 year old grandmother who embodies all that is the stereotypic stubborn-Irish-matriarch, mmmmm… not so much!  When not feeling up to it I often opt out with the usual excuses.

A few weeks ago I made the effort to attend since my uncle was in from out of state for a short visit. When the conversation turned to “buy local-eat seasonal” I got my game-face on, and was ready to promote Farmer’s Markets & growing your own organic, pesticide-free food!  I argued the usual points to those who were amazed at what I pay for produce from my local organic farmer, but I thought my grandmother & a family friend would have a heart-attack when they heard me say I pay $5 for a dozen eggs (about twice a month; $10 a month?  Really?).

Well, I just returned home from yet another family tradition:  The $11.99 Monday night special at our other favourite local restaurant.  Grandma loves the special price on ribs!  I can’t believe I never saw it before, but this just hit me like a ton of bricks, especially since grandma mentioned the $5 eggs again over dinner……

People who scoff at paying $5-6 for a dozen local, organic eggs, think nothing of paying $7-10 for 2 eggs, 1 waffle, & a cup of coffee plus tip every week! Or $80 plus tip for a party of 5 two or three times a month!  I think I’ll stay home next week & make a 2-egg omelet with my own homegrown veggies for a staggering grand total of $0.82!  OK, maybe $1.82 if you calculate the cost of the seed, utilities used in production, & the butter on my toast, but don’t even get me started on the whole GMO, gas-usage, and carbon-footprint thing involved with driving to & from that favourite restaurant 3-6 times a month! It just doesn’t compare.