Category Archives: Uncategorized

First Day Upstairs – Branches

This is my first day of writing in the sunroom since we began our house renovation over four months ago. I am awestruck by the view out the window. 

Branches 

Snow-laden evergreen tops nod in acknowledgement.  

Fresh powder floats on the grill, defying its purpose. 

Branches tell tales of growth,

tentacles supported by the past. 

 

Branches. 

 

Reach for connection.

Greet in affirmation. 

Bow in Grace. 

Sway in private rhythm.

 

Grounded.

Balanced. 

Belonging. 

Yet buried in snow and ice – nourishing the soul. 

 

Grayness deepens this monochrome wonder.  

Guideposts wait – patient, knowing.

Roots keen on unseen Light. 

Bark bearing burdens of faithful hope. 

 

Layers of interwoven boughs,

a never-ending tapestry

communicating wisdom

in silence. 

 

We will stand tall. 

We will dance.

We will fall. 

We will die. 

 

And we will nourish others infinitely.  

 

The Luggage Tag

My lifelong friend Laura turned 58 last week. At this age, what do we give friends? Scarves and earrings always fit. Laura is a middle school teacher, so I knew not to give her a coffee mug, no matter how meaningful or funny the quote on the cup. This year, I gave Laura a luggage tag. It fits in the category of scarves and jewelry, and when I saw it in the tiny gift shop in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin (yes, that is a real place), I thought it was perfect for Laura. 

She sent of photo of the gift attached to her teacher bag with a text: “I decided to use my tag on my everyday bag as a reminder of my crazy friends.” 

Gratitude soared through me starting at my stomach straight to my eyes – pure gratefulness in the moment for the women in my life who could be holding those suitcases – a recognition of the blessing of friendship.  

Being grounded in gratitude is not living in La La Land. It is a practice, an observing and awareness and sensing of the good – which is everywhere. It is not deciding what is good and what is bad. It has nothing to do with thinking. Thank goodness.     

Gift of 2020

On the first day of each semester, I am filled with anticipation of the new gift I get to open as I enter the classroom. What will the students be like? What new insights will they share with me that I have never considered? Who will share their stories that I crave to hear? Who will open my heart to incongruences I’ve never recognized? Who will laugh at my jokes? 

I try to explain to students that they are offered an incredible gift in each class they take. They get to learn from a scholar who is filled with passion for the discipline. They get to witness teachers at their best doing their beloved life’s work. They get to meet people from all over the world, yet how many take the time to really talk to the shy boy from China or the serious girl from Saudi Arabia or the smiling exchange student from Germany? How many from Chicago ask the rural Indiana kids what it’s really like to grow up on a farm with daily chores of milking cows and weeding gardens? How many farm kids ask Chicagoans about hanging out in alleys and city parks or about the fear of sitting on the front porch in the heat of summer?

Philosopher Simone Weil wrote that the gift of attention is a miracle. Years ago, we studied her work in the freshman seminar course at Valparaiso University, and the conversations with students remain with me.  Skeptical pre-cellphone freshmen would view me as an idealist when I would argue that miracles occur in conversation. As evidence, I sight our friends who adopted a child from China as a result of hearing a similar story at a dinner party. To reiterate my point, I argue that my husband and I would never have married if we hadn’t spoken to each other. I also ask what sane person would make a lifelong commitment to another if not for the intervention of a miracle? 

Joy is a miracle. The birth of Christ is a miracle, and in it, the world rejoices. Joy is found in connection with others, with God, with nature, with art, with movement, with attention. At church a few weeks ago, the priest asked what gift we will give Christ this Christmas. I thought of the little drummer boy who thought he had nothing to give. That’s how I feel sometimes. How foolish is that? We’re blessed with opportunities to promote goodness just by being, not necessarily by doing. We have loads to give and it occurs in our interactions, our sharing of our talents, our quiet moments, and our attunement to others and the world around us. All of us have the potential to be there for one another.

My gift this upcoming year is to pay attention, to listen, to feel others, and to be wholly present. It is a practice, and it won’t be easy. I have a tendency to live my life looking in the rearview mirror. Any driver knows that you can’t drive that way without crashing. I also tend to live full-speed ahead in planning the next visit to see my children and grandchildren, preparing for the next party, considering the next syllabus or essay, or . . .  in the old days, training for the next marathon. 

What gift do you offer in 2020? 

Visit Again

On Monday, Kevin, Brendan and I visited my mother at Mercy Circle, the retirement home on the southside of Chicago where my mom lives. My mom is 92, and she was thrilled to see my sons.

“Well, you both have red hair!”

“Yes, we do, Grandma,” smiled Brendan.

“And yours is curly,” she said pointing to Brendan, “and yours is straight,” she indicated toward  Kevin.

“Yes, Brendan got the Scannell curls, and Kevin has Neylon hair,” I explained.

“I bet people say things to you about your hair.”

“Yes, they do,” Brendan confirmed. “A woman once stopped me on the street and asked me if my name was Conner. I said, ‘Close, but no.’ She said she was looking for her red-headed son that she gave up for adoption. She thought I might be him.”

“Hmm, I hope she found him,” replied my mom.

I witnessed this interaction as my wheelchair-ridden mom adoringly held each boy’s hand. They stood awkwardly accepting her praise for a family trait they did nothing to acquire. 

We stayed for awhile while Brendan repeated that he lives in LA, and Kevin reiterated that he lives in New York. She was intrigued that they came such a long way to see her. 

We wheeled her down the hall where fellow residents, mostly nuns, were watching A Christmas Carol.  My mom introduced Brendan and Kevin and explained that they live far away. Each woman reached out to hold the boys’ hands, and they complied with grace. 

One of the nuns said, “You both have red hair,” and I thought, here we go again. Brendan and Kevin smiled and nodded. My heart swelled as I witnessed the beautiful dance between elderly and youth, basic observation and welcoming acknowledgement, the quest for connection and the gift of presence. 

When it was time for us to leave, my mom wanted to escort us to the exit. At the door, she extended her boney, discolored hands, grasped Brendan and Kevin’s lily smooth fingers, looked into their eyes, and said, “Please visit again. Next time, you don’t have to bring your mother.”

She’s still got it. We doubled over laughing.  

Whah’d ya say?

Six months ago, Tim and I moved to “the lake,” the Chicagoland term for Lake Michigan. We love it in Michiana Shores, and we frequently see our friends in Chicago and Valparaiso. We are not lonely even though we have only made one real friend here – Reed, the man who lives next door.

This greatly concerns my ninety-two-year-old mother. She grasps that we have moved although she still introduces me to the women on her floor at Mercy Circle as her daughter from Valparaiso. I do not correct her. I’m grateful that she recalls that I live in Indiana.

Every time I visit my mom, she asks me how I like my new house. And I always respond, “I like it.” She asks, “How are the neighbors?” Until I met Reed, I said, “I don’t know. I don’t know anybody.” I explain that the house has a long driveway and is set in the woods. I describe how Michiana Shores is different from Long Beach, the beautiful town a mile away where my parents’ bought a second home in 1973 at Stop 14, the resident beach of many cherished memories.

Last weekend, Tim and I visited my mom. Sliding into our norm, my mom asked, “How’s your new house?” I said, “I like it. It is very quiet.” A few minutes later, she asked, “How’s your new house?” and I replied, “I like it. It’s quiet.” Two minutes later, she asked, “How’s your new house?” Deciding to mix it up a bit, I added, “Nobody comes down our street.”

With deep concern, she leaned back in her wheelchair and asked, “Whah’d ya say?”

I said, “The house is quiet. Nobody comes down our street.”

“Oh, I thought you said ‘nobody comes down our chimney.'”

She tried to explain, “With all these songs about Santa Claus . . ..” and she couldn’t finish her thought – not because of age but because of pure mirth. I laughed my head off, and she nearly careened out of her chair.

Apparantly, Christmas carols are played in excess at Mercy Circle.

Thanksgiving on Artesian Ave.

For me, there are no greater sensory memories than those of Thanksgiving on Artesian Avenue when I was a child. We lived a half block from Chicago’s Kennedy Park, and Thanksgiving morning meant no school, great smells, a busy mom who wanted nothing to do with me, and football with my friend Laura, my brother Danny, the Griffins and Cronins and lots of other random neighborhood kids. Everyone was welcome to play in those organically created variations of football. 

I loved St. Cajetan, but the day off on Thanksgiving meant everyone was home. In the 60’s, we were free to play, but Thanksgiving meant that the adored “big” kids would also particpate because all of their moms didn’t want them around either. I look back, and my sister Eileen did not experience my freedom because she has always been a great help in the kitchen. To this day, she is an amazing Bon Appetit cook. I, on the other hand, was in the way, or at least that’s how I perceived my mom’s strange preoccupation with basting the turkey all morning. I couldn’t reach the oven, and the belief that I am useless in the kitchen has stuck with me ever since.  

I’d wake to wafts of roasted turkey and gravy because my mom started early. I mean really early. The weekend before Thanksgiving, I often helped set the table with my mom’s delicate rosebud China, beautiful silver and gorgeous Irish linen napkins. I was not trusted with the Waterford crystal. My mom is smart. She knows who to count on to not shatter those precious glasses.  I learned at the age of five or six that the fork goes on the left, and the spoon and butter knife go on the right. We didn’t mess with salad forks, dessert spoons, or bread plates. It was all we could do to fit what was needed for twelve or more around the dining room table. We only ate in the dining room on Thanksgiving. Otherwise, that room, along with the living room, was off limits until Christmas. 

I could sense rising tension as meal preparation escalated. Like my mom, I’m smart, so I would find Danny and scram. We’d bundle up in old hooded sweatshirts, jeans, gym shoes, hats, and mittens, grab a football, and head to the park.  My friend Laura would inevitably meet us there, and I believe we continued this routine until about 7th grade when we realized with sadness that the boys started treating us like girls. 

One particularly chilly, wet Thanksgiving, Danny and I trudged home, first stopping to run our fingers along the chain link fence on the corner at 114th Street. The motion of my reverberating fingers seemed like magic as they blurred with the speed of our arms. Danny and I opened the side door of our house just as someone was heading to the basement to get yet another gallon of milk. This someone exclaimed, and my dad poked his head around the door at the top of the stairs. He let out a squeal of delight and a laugh and said, “Eileen, come see this.” Danny and I stood there, frozen both from cold and from fear, and my mom told us to peel off our clothes  right there on the landing and get in the basement shower. Danny and I missed the memo that we were covered in mud. We just knew we just played the best best round of mall ball ever . . . until the next time. 

I remember sitting at the “kids table,” a card table set up for those of us ousted by our birth dates. I never minded because it meant we could go down to the basement sooner to play at “the bar.” The bar consisted of two stools and a tall table. We’d play bartender until it was our turn to play ping pong or pool, whatever table was set up that year. 

In 1972, my McCue cousins came over, and the older cousins opted to watch television in the “TV room”, a main floor bedroom converted to a family room when some of the older kids moved out. They asked if we wanted to watch Home for the Holidays. It absolutely terrified me. I blame that film on my complete intolerance for anything scary, including an unexpected person rounding the corner in the hallway at work. My fear for anything not anticipated began at the age of ten with Sally Field in the lead role. I could barely watch The Flying Nun after that.

My Grandpa Sullivan was still alive then, and my memory is that he was not much of a talker. Turns out it is because his language of preference was Irish. I only knew how to say the Sign of the Cross and kiss my ass in Irish, so I just looked upon him as one of the gentlest, humblest people in the world. And it amazed me that he liked peas. I hated them and clandestinely dropped them under the table. Whenever my mom served peas, I offered to sweep. 

My olfactory sense wasn’t the only one triggered on Thanksgiving. Murmurs of older brothers so full that they moved with a slight moan, the snoring from my dad’s chair, the white noise of television football games, and the chatter of my older sisters cleaning up filled the house. I remember holding a damp dish towel as someone taller handed me dishes to wipe. I thought, “Now I get it. Mom and Dad had me so I could dry.” We all had jobs, so I figured that my parents had kids to make sure everything got done.  

My mom’s Thanksgiving meal is to this day the very best meal I have ever had. Nothing will ever top it because nothing will ever include the memories of that full house. After dinner, all ten of us pulled names for the annual Christmas gift exchange. Once I could write, I was in charge of making sure everyone pulled a name out of the hat which was really a bowl, but we called it a hat. 

The excitement of thinking about the person whose name I pulled stayed with me all the way to Christmas Eve when the gifts were opened. The older kids may have tired of the tradition, but to me, the grab bag was one of the only times where I could participate as an equal to siblings two to fourteen years older than me. I loved thinking about whatever brother or sister I picked. 

This year, my daughter Bethy and her husband Danny are hosting Thanksgiving, and although not all of our kids participate in the Christmas grab bag, those that do get to conjur up thoughts of a loving gift for a brother or sister all month. Some years, we call it a “no gift” Christmas, and a song, poem, drawing or craft is enough to thrill the receiver. It’s all in the thought. I just love that.  

 

 

Ode to Long Distance

In college, a rest

was a run of just six.

Craved more miles

to get my big fix.

 

Grooved in peace

gliding grace, quiet ten –

ran it weekly,

again, again.

 

Triathlon craze –

add bike, add swim.

Goal not to drown –

did some with Tim.

 

Half ironman training,

vivid ironman dreams.

Laps in the pool,

Masters swim teams.

 

Tim ran Chicago

after cheering for years.

Cramped, crossed finish

So much for post beers.

 

Tim said “No more.

Running ‘aint for me.

Run all you want, Nance,

Just let me be.”

 

I ran San Francisco,

Still caught in the lure

Then came Nashville

Mist, drizzle, downpour.

 

Turn fifty. Aha!

Yes! Less is more.

Pilates and yoga,

dig life on the floor.

 

Hamstrings scream

at forward fold.

Breathe, reach, stretch,

Beats getting old.

 

Pay attention to breath,

yep, bit by bit

it’s getting easier –

Be present and sit.

 

Headstand, handstand,

impossible feats

Would send on Twitter

if I knew how to tweet.

 

This morn, injured –

Can’t even run three.

Finally learning

I’m free just to be.   

Be That As It May

What does that mean? Tim and I were in Ireland this month, and we found people saying this over and over again. Then we watched The Derry Girls on Netflix when we got home, and there it was tumbling out of characters’ mouths – that puzzling summary of all that has been stated before: Be that as it may. 

 

I gather “be that as it may” is a way of warning you that I’m going to totally disregard everything you just said and tell you my way. So there. 

 

Or I’m going to express an opinion, and then follow it up with a hedge: Be that as it may. 

 

Note: If you watch The Derry Girls, be sure to turn on the subtitles. Enough said about the Irish accent. And after wearing a Catholic school uniform for twelve years, being taught by nuns, and attending Mother McAuley High School, The Derry Girls is a delight for me. You just have to tolerate a lot of f-bombs. Be that as it may. 

Sea Glass

Broken glass.  

Strollers pluck 

rounded edges

half buried in surf.

 

Rumbling earth.

Tumbling waves.

Seeds wash away

Lost at sea.

 

Words dig chasms.

Hearts probe 

For memories of love.

Calm moments holding, holding.

 

Family photos,

Grade-school poses,

Longing to rock and embrace

Forever. Amen. 

 

Tenderness once whole

Splinters to recesses.

Goodbye –

Solitude remains.   

 

Ragged edges soothed

by whispered psalms –

Mantras of hope

cllimb the final stairs. 

 

Resilient sea glass

Gleam in dirt, sand –

Glint hope, beauty, Light, love –

the palm of God’s hand.   

 

Beaches disclose

Smooth, caressed treasures

Weathered, lovely, mighty,

Reminders on the windowsill.

 

TEDx and Me

Last night, I gave a TEDx talk, “The Power of the Pause,” at the 4th Annual Valparaiso University TedX event. The theme was [Moment]um which is probably why my proposal was accepted. I sent it in on a whim and had no idea what was in store over the next two and a half months. 

You would think that I was preparing a twelve-minute presentation that would define my entire existence. I spent hours and hours and hours writing, rewriting, memorizing, and re-memorizing. I read Talk Like TED by Carmine Gallo and reviewed sections of Dale Carnegie’s texts. I reviewed TED talks and reflected on what has gone well and what has bombed in my presentations at Valpo. 

I had the talk completely down ten days before the event. I even reached out to my cousin Brendan Sullivan of Creativity Coaching to help me with the delivery. (This is big. We Neylons try not to bother anyone.) But that was for the talk I did not give. Maybe someday I will deliver that one to an audience who wants to hear about a fifty-six year-old lunatic who can’t decide where her passions lie because “everything is so fascinating.” Oh man. I think I really wrote that.

My son Brendan also coached me on the TEDx talk that never was.

As an over-preparer who wants to really get things right, I was stunned when – nine days before showtime – the TEDx Director, a senior Mechanical Engineering student completed devoted to the TedX event’s success, met with me and told me my talk did not fit into one of the two categories of Ted Talks: a brand new innovative idea or a new angle an old idea. I thought, “What? You mean people don’t want to hear about the chaos of my life and my discovery of the value of presence?”

Then I realized – they don’t. Hugely humble moment #17 in this process.

So I completely rewrote the talk after spending hours of my cousin and my son’s (both Brendans – we repeat names a lot in my family) to help me.

That Friday with one week to go, the ME student and I met again and discussed the revision. Unsmiling, he said, “You are making progress.” I thought, “Hm. I think that’s a good thing. Not exactly the crowd-cheering accolades I was expecting.” I was determined to get this young man to grin. At the end of our meeting, he cracked a slight one when I complimented him on so carefully following the TEDx guidelines. I was sincerely appreciative. 

So I read pages and pages of Doug Silsee and Richard Strozz-Heckler’s work on presence over the weekend, worked on what I thought was my final draft, and sent it off to the student who doesn’t study the humanities on Sunday – five days before the big day.

On 4:10am on Monday morning, I opened my laptop to a message from Mr. TEDx, and he said that it was looking good. He hadn’t changed any of my ideas, but he had rearranged them. He also changed a few words here and there.

My cousin Brendan texted me on Monday afternoon and asked how the talk was coming along. I replied that the new version was now a totally different speech. I thanked him for helping me work on my presentation skills and assured him that they would transfer to this new version. I was staying positive.

As I rehearsed Ted version #9, I tried to own words that were not mine such as “taking stock of the somatic input from my . . ..” I never say “taking stock.” Tim might buy stock, but I don’t take it. I think of beef when I hear the word “stock.”

On Tuesday, my son Brendan and I had a Zoom meeting for what I thought would be a quick check-in for content clarity. After getting through the first page, Brendan said, “Whoa. Stop, Mom.”

Oh man. I had had it. My soma was kicking in big time. (My talk is about the soma, the body-mind-heart integration that sends us messages.) I felt deflated, defeated, annoyed, and ready to say screw it.

I simply asked my loving son, “Why?’

“You sound bored.”

“I frickin’ am bored! I’ve been working on this damn thing for weeks, and now some of this isn’t even in words I would ever use.”

He said, “Find those words and change them back to your language. This is your talk.”

So I did.

There were only three short phrases that did not ring true to me, but they were enough to throw me off, to make me feel inauthentic.  The student had the very best intentions. He just doesn’t talk like I do. He’s an engineer. Enough said.

So I switched the wording back, rehearsed like a mad woman for three days, and lost my mind on stupid stuff in the last hours before showtime. Yep. I got my eyebrows professionally waxed on Thursday night, did an at-home Arbonne facial, whitened my teeth, and got my hair blown dry and curled on Friday morning. I wish I was making this up. (I have only had my hair done twice in my life – for my daughters’ weddings. Nobody got married last night in the 720 seconds of me standing in that red circle.)

My talk was last in the four-hour event. (No kidding. 4:00-8:00pm.) I was so calm as I soaked in insight from a NASA engineer, a California-based e-commerce author and entrepreneur, a recovered addict with a story I will never forget, and others. Then it was my turn to go backstage. I went through a series of centering exercises, but my soma would have none of it. My body screamed, “Panic!”

To me, everything that could go wrong, went wrong. The microphone was put in place over my ear, and I didn’t realized it was on when I told the student workers that I was drawing a blank on parts of my talk. One student put his finger to his mouth and told me that my mic was on, and the audience could hear me. Holy shit. (There’s another story here about Tim’s mic being on throughout our entire wedding mass, but I won’t go there.)

One kind student taped the mic to the side of my face. During the talk, it randomly banged against my cheek and sent “Kaboom!” sounds in my right ear.

I lost my place due to a mishap with a slide, and I struggled to figure out how to blend the unexpected slide with what I was really going to say.  I remembered that good presentations do not rely on technology, and I was determined to plow through.

I couldn’t tell if my jokes were hitting. How does my son Brendan do stand-up in LA? The vulnerability is torture. 

I finished, walked back stage, fumbled with the wires, and told the students that I lost my place. A swarm of them comforted me. One said that he was lost in the talk as he watched on the monitor. I want to find that kid and give him a hug.

I was last, so I did not re-enter the recital hall. I stayed in the lobby and waited for Tim and my friends, Teresa, Tom, Lissa, Ali and Bill to come out. I thanked Doug and Elly from dining services and marveled at the work involved in putting on this event. The cookies and desserts were beautifully displayed; the huge TEDx banners, the sign-in areas, the entire Center for the Arts reflected the complete professionalism and planning of our Valpo students. I was overwhelmed with their efforts, and I just stood there – numb. 

My friends emerged from the auditorium. Bill turned to Tim and said, “You ought to marry her.” Tim said, “I did.” My soma gently whispered, “Woosh.”

I said, “I goofed up. The mic . . ..  the tape on my face . . . the slide . . . my notes . . ..”

Tom said, “You couldn’t tell.”

Lissa said, “Don’t look at your notes. You’re done.” (Earlier that day, she had said she had always thought about doing a Ted Talk until she saw me be completely consumed by it.)

Ali said, “I cried when you said . . ..”  I thought, “You are so amazingly kind.”

Tim and I walked back to the car, and he didn’t say much about the message. He had heard the damn thing at least fifteen times.

We went to a Mexican restaurant, and I buried my woes in a basket of chips (the whole thing) and a mountain of quacamole washed down with one and half Corona Lights. I was too tired to finish the second bottle.

As we left LaCabana, I looked down at my new, black suede Dansko boots I had splurged on  for my big debut. They were spattered in slush. I thought, “I do love these boots.”

This morning, I read texts and emails from close friends who said they prayed for me. My only goal was to somehow glorify God last night. Just now, I reread my notes. I see that I did hit the main points. My prayer is that people are impacted, that people pause and seek change, that people strive to become instruments of peace, that people forgive themselves and others.

I now pause, feel, identify, reflect, shift, and choose an alternative perspective – the gist of my talk.  I choose gratitude for the opportunity to grow.