Plan 54

When I was a senior in college, I played Emily in Our Town.  You may recall that the play treats its audience to a few days in the lives of two families in a small New Hampshire town at the turn of the last century. The first two acts are a long, loving look at the ordinary, but the third act takes place in the town cemetery, where Emily (having just died in childbirth) has been laid to rest, but is not yet restful.  Venerable English professor Frank Olley was directing Our Town at St. Joseph’s University for the third time in as many decades.  Asked how it was different this time, he pondered for a moment, then said simply, “The third act looms larger.”

In October of 2016–almost thirty years after Doc Olley uttered that line–I began working on an essay called Act III, reflecting on the ways that the untimely deaths in my own life had caused me to reevaluate my priorities.  I wrote:

I find myself less willing to store my dreams in the “someday” column. And so I have to ask: when am I going to stop gazing longingly at every RV that I pass on the highway, ante up, and hit the road?  When am I going to bear down and actually write the book that’s been noodling around in my head for a decade?  When am I going to quit my day job and become the “freelance me” that I’ve spent the last 15 years telling people I want to be when I grow up?  Although I don’t know when the curtain will rise on my own Act III, it is starting to loom larger.  It’s time to take more risks.

The RV purchase remains a question.  (Where would I park it?)   But I did indeed bear down on the book.  Less than four months after committing that question to paper, I was curled up on a sofa at When Words Count, writing Finding God in Ordinary Time.  And now I have an answer to the third question as well.  When am I going to quit my day job and become the “freelance me” I’ve talked about forever?  July 31.

That’s right . . . after twenty-six years as a campus minister, I am stepping down from my position at Gwynedd Mercy University at the end of this month.  I am leaving a field I have loved extravagantly, peeling off a label I’ve used to identify myself for almost half my life.  People keep asking me if I’m sad, or scared, and the answer really is no to both.  This is what God is calling me to at this point in my life.  It’s time.

Shortly after writing the essay about Act III, I started a file on my computer called “Plan 54.”  I was 51 years old at the time, and figured it would take me about three years to lay the groundwork for the future I was dreaming of.  With no clear idea how to get from there to here, I named the file aspirationally, and got to work. 

Today is my 54th birthday.

In the final chapter of Finding God, I wrote about my cousin Susan, whose death (seven years ago yesterday) at age 46 was one of the losses that inspired my soul-searching about priorities.  I closed the chapter by saying:

Will I take a risk to pursue a dream?

It is, as they say, a matter of life and death.

Choose wisely!

That is exactly what I’m doing now: taking a risk to pursue a dream.  It may look fanciful, but deep down, it is highly practical.

When I talk about time management at work, I often say this:  do what only you can do.  If you’re up against a deadline on a report that only you can write, and the copier’s out of toner, ask someone else to change the toner; sometimes it really is that simple.  This life change is based on a similar principle: someone else can take the helm of Gwynedd’s campus ministry quite capably; only I can offer the retreats I want to give, talk about the topics I’m passionate about, and write my next book.

The details are still a bit fuzzy.  I have a slate of speaking engagements lined up throughout the fall and well into winter.  But first, I’ll be spending three weeks in September at a cottage in Maine.  I want to give myself a definitive break.  At the time of year ordinarily reserved for countless back-to-school activities, I plan to go for long walks, cook leisurely meals, and watch the ebb and flow of the harbor tide as I ponder the ebb and flow of prayer and productivity that will anchor my new life.  It is something I must discover and decide as I go.  I look forward to sharing the fruits of this adventure with you here.

If you, too, have a dream that requires some risk, may I suggest this:  go ahead and give it a name. 

Who knows what could happen?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Long Does it Take to Change?

This season, I am loving Ann Garrido‘s Lenten devotional “The Living Gospel” from Ave Maria Press.  We’re only five days in, of course, but so far each pithy, insightful observation by the author of Redeeming Conflict and Redeeming Administration has kept me ruminating all day.

On this first Sunday of Lent, Ann wrote about the fact that “These Forty Days of Lent” aren’t actually forty days (go ahead, do the math).  Forty is more of a symbolic number.  I knew that the biblical forty generally stands for “a really long time” (think of the Israelites’ forty years in the desert, or Jesus’ forty days in the desert, or the forty days from Easter to Ascension).  But Ann took it a step farther, explaining that the number forty in the Bible represents “the length of time it takes for a change to be complete and something new to begin.”

Wow.

Then, at St. Vincent’s this morning, Fr. Tom McKenna preached about “disruption” as a necessary ingredient in change.  When the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert, he suggested, it was more of a “divine shove” than a gentle invitation.

This makes sense to me.  Change does not come easily to most of us.  Often we are pushed into circumstances not of our choosing: the disruption of illness, or trauma, or other external life change.  The internal change (spiritual growth) follows after, if we can open ourselves to the invitation buried in the disruption.  Only then can something new begin.

For many years now, I’ve been encouraging people to “lean into life” during Lent.  “Choose your sacrifices” I say, “but draw close to God in the sacrifices life chooses for you.”  This year, I want to pay attention to disruption: the things that break in and get my attention against my will.  What is God inviting me to through them?   How am I being called to change?  And how long will my forty days be?

The concept of change is something I am itching to explore in a next book (#2 or #3, I’m still not sure). How have I changed over the years?  What made lasting change possible?  Now that I’m less than two weeks out from my editing deadline for Finding God in Ordinary Time, I have this fantasy of having time to re-read the dozens of journals I’ve kept over the years, tracing the origins of what eventually became my firmly held spiritual beliefs.  We shall see.

For now, I just want to keep leaning into life, being present to the demands and disruptions of each day, and marveling at the goodness of God–and other people–in the midst of it all.


And speaking of the goodness of other people . . . thank you to everyone who weighed in last week on my chapter title.  I chose “Finding God in an Outstretched Hand,” in part for the ambiguity of it.  Whose hand are we talking about here?  That of a beggar at the Basilica, or my own?  Or the reader’s?  Thank you to Ann-Therese Ortiz (old friend, spiritual director, and generally wise woman) for the suggestion.  I can’t wait to inscribe your book!

Blessings to all in this holy season.  May each of your ordinary days be extraordinarily blessed!

– Christine