During a Wednesday night dinner for three that convened much later than I’m used to – and involving more wine than I’ve had at such a witching hour – we inevitably touched on topics close to the heart. Moments and experiences gently hemmed together with hurt and grief are less painful today and perhaps a bit easier to talk about, but their borders are still unmistakable. As we talked and ate, drank and shared some more, my inner narrative, among the gentle clinks of wine glasses and flatware, started forming the idea of emotional memory and, very plainly, how we deal.
During trying, testing times of personal trauma, family crisis, and the like, I’ve often found myself fleeing to the familiar. When nothing looks normal or feels even remotely right, my coping strategy is to head down a well-worn path. Here’s the secret: for me, the road not taken in recent years has always been there. I just needed to be in the proper frame of mind to find it.
An example: My return to Catholicism a few years ago came during some very trying times. As I stood in the circle of my own windstorm of uncertainty and foreign emotions, my quickest sanctuary was visiting a place I’ve been before. Twelve years of Catholic school proved a solid, beginning foundation to a religious life. But as I wrote in Nerdy Thirty, I quickly replaced all that church stuff with journalism my first year of college. It was 1997. I had finally found my home at our college newspaper. I prayed daily at the altars of Woodward and Bernstein. My morning and nightly novenas were instead writing snappy lede sentences and clever, two-deck headlines. Rather than church hymns of my youth I developed a love for classic rock of the seventies (a love that remains strong even today), thanks to shaggy-haired photographers who commanded control of the darkroom’s stereo.
My weekly Mass attendance slowly ended, holy days of obligation even more quickly, until I never thought about what it meant to be Catholic anymore.
And yet, some fifteen years later, when large swaths of my daily life spun in unimaginable, unfamiliar, and at times terrifying directions, I headed directly to what I knew best.
I never stopped writing, but I started going to church. And it felt weird at first. But I kept going every now and again. And, at some point, it started to feel familiar.
Weekly Mass lead to a trial run of skimming daily devotionals and faith-based writers. Some were inspirational, others a bit too preachy. It took awhile to find a few that spoke to where I stood and what I needed – especially as I struggled to identify just what that was. I was desperate to feel better by any means necessary; Simon and Garfunkel and Sauvignon Blanc just weren’t enough anymore.
And so I prayed and wrote and read, often in the morning and sometimes before bed. My prayers became less like the standards I learned in grade school and more like an ongoing conversation – much like time spent with friends you don’t see that often. The best relationships are those that pick up right where they left off, as if no time or distance has passed.
The more I allowed faith and spirituality to slowly spread into my life, the more familiar it became. And on the worse possible days, I started to feel just a tiny bit better.
I suppose it was deliberate at first, the same way you might react with a stomachache: you reach for what you think (hope?) will work. Anything to ease the pain. As the days turned into weeks, the weeks into months, and life started resembling something more conventional and more ordinary, prayer became something I sought less for relief and more out of routine.
In this world and time we are all moving through together, we can use a respite to the familiar every chance we get. It varies what I need from day to day, but what has changed is I now have a map to find those places of healing. And, if I’m being honest, I’ve never been more eager to help others find theirs. That spirit of support is what inspired my latest tattoo, song lyrics lifted from the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi. His message was simply this: life’s meaning and purpose are realized by using what you have to help others. Lessons learned from heartbreak shouldn’t remain hidden. Put that pain to good use and lend a hand whenever you can. You will be amazed at the grace you will receive.