Because it’s important

June 19, 2011

I was sad to learn about the recent passing of Mr. Beverly W. “Booty” Armstrong, one of the first people I met in Richmond and someone who made a lasting impact on me. During my rounds of informational interviews, a potential employer suggested that I speak with Booty about his work with the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation – at the time, the Foundation was raising capital to renovate and expand a historic downtown theater. I asked what motivated him to become involved with the project. He replied, “Honestly, I would rather be at a football game than watching a performance, but I do this because it is important for Richmond.”

I’ll never forget that straight-shooting and honest statement about why he was doing what he was doing. As I came to know my adopted city, I found Mr. Armstrong to be among a generation of Virginia gentlemen who cared deeply about the community in which they built businesses and raised their children, and who hoped it would continue to be a city in which their grandchildren would want to live and work. (I mention the men because at the time, they were more visible in corporate leadership than equally- involved and -philanthropic women.)

While meeting with this slightly intimidating yet humor-filled man, he also said to me, “You’re quite comfortable talking with wealthy people, aren’t you?” I was taken aback, and hoped I had not been so informal as to be disrespectful. I had just moved from Aspen, where people of different socioeconomic levels mixed on a daily basis, mostly on a recreational level. Friendly, real interaction with people of wealth who cared about their community as I did had been integral to my eight years of non-profit fundraising in that town. However, there is always deference involved when asking someone to invest their hard-earned money in the common good. Even while I firmly believe that it takes many people playing different roles to create good change in the world – those who ask for funding, those who provide it, and the experts and participants who use it to make change happen – I still find it humbling when donors say yes.

I only spoke with Booty a handful of times after that exceptional first meeting, and I hadn’t seen him for several years. However, he continues to be a role model for me in his commitment to issues he considered critical for the health of this city. I suspect we had different political views, but I’ve been repeatedly surprised by the ways that we in this town can come together to work for what is important.

I do my work primarily because I care about creating equal opportunities for people who do not have them. I also do it because I feel affection for this old, traditional, southern city: a city with injuries so deep they will always be felt, and at the same time a city with promise so great it has yet to be fully realized.

Richmond, along with many other high-poverty urban areas, has problems that are too large for us to solve on our own, either as individuals or as small groups. I think these are problems that require God’s help to solve. But I also believe God wants us to give it our best shot, and at least try before depending on divine intervention to cure our ills.

During my workday, while driving from meeting to meeting, I’ve begun asking for knowledge of God’s will for our community and for God to grant us the power to carry it out. While sitting at a table with colleagues who are working towards a common goal, I sometimes ask the Holy Spirit to come into the room with us. I’m not sure it works, but I sense that my own will relaxes and I become open to our creating something greater than any of us can envision on our own.

I will miss Mr. Armstrong’s presence in this city. Though I didn’t know him well, I believe his big spirit and his example will live on as the rest of us continue to care for this place we love.

Some Kind of Naive

May 31, 2011

Please forgive the long pause I’ve taken in my writing during months of wedding planning and my busy day job. My brain was at max capacity. Our wedding was glorious, making it worth every spreadsheet created and to-do list tackled!

Since then, I’ve been wondering when the inspiration to write would return. However, three people told me yesterday they missed my blog (not counting my Mom!) That felt like a nudge from above to keep taking the risk.

This all relates, at least in mind, to the topic for today: naivety.

At my wedding reception, a college friend distributed a lighthearted and mildly embarrassing “Eleanor” quiz, and when I read the entries the next morning, I was surprised and a bit hurt to discover that one of my sisters had described me as “naive.”

According to the Free Dictionary “naive” means: 1.) Lacking worldly experience and understanding, 2.) Showing or characterized by a lack of sophistication and critical judgment.

Pretty sure that inflicting pain was not my sister’s intent, I asked her if she would explain what she meant by her choice of words. She said that I approach the world “leading with trust, rather than caution or fear” and that I am willing to learn my lessons as a result. I admit, indeed, I do and I am.

She also wrote “goofy” when the survey asked for three adjectives that describe me. Now, not many women in a wedding dress would take well to being labeled “goofy.” So again, I asked what she meant; she responded, “open, in touch with glee and humor.” Well, yes, I like to think this is true too! I love to laugh more than just about anything, and luckily I’ve married someone who makes me do so on a regular basis.

I haven’t always been this way. In my twenties, I approached life with fear instead of trust. Fear of the future. Fear of inadequacy. Fear of scarcity. Fear of others’ opinions of me. When I turned 26, I decided this was no way to live. I was wasting my precious time on Earth being sad and scared. Since then, with the help of innumerable influences, I’ve made conscious choices about how I want to live each day and how I hope my spirit will feel as a result.

This way of living is not for the faint of heart. I’ve been willing to experiment. I have royally screwed up things that have taken years to fix. I’ve embarrassed myself repeatedly and in ways that seem even more mortifying when I look back on them. Even now, when I share some of who I really am at staff meetings, public events or in my Bible study, I doubt the wisdom of doing so. Every time I send this blog to you, I wonder if I have said too much and risked some of my pride.

Many years ago when I lived in DC, I once rode my bike from Capitol Hill to a park in Alexandria. I stopped along the Potomac, stretched out on a grassy lawn and read Hugh Prather’s “Notes on Love and Courage.” In it, he writes, “People need people more than they need pride.” It struck me as truth then, and it still strikes me as truth now, though I have questioned it through the years.

That’s why I participate openly in life and love. I hope that if I do so, someone else might too. I treasure realness.

So, when I speak up, am I doing so for my own good? Or does it, could it, help someone else? Should I share my dreams out loud, risking embarrassment or pity if they don’t come true? What if I kept silent – would I be more powerful were I a private person?

When a question is posed to a group and I have an answer, should I contribute to the conversation or leave more space for others to step up? What if they don’t want to? What if their strategy is to play life closer to the chest?

I try to make conscious decisions about baring my soul, yet I don’t always think through what I might later feel about having done so. Is this naivety?

I share my thoughts, my heart and my experiences because I feel grateful and humbled when others do the same. I believe that if I give what I can of me, my experience of life will be richer. I like hearing your big questions, your hurts, your lessons learned and funny thoughts, your sweetest hopes, and your joys. I’m amazed when you invite me in to see who you really are. So that’s why I do it too.

On Becoming a “We”

February 14, 2011

“The mystery which unites two beings is great; without it the world would not exist.” -The Gospel of Philip, Analogue 40, as translated by Jean-Yves Leloup

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to get married, to become a “we.” It’s already starting to happen. I am still an “I” and I am also now part of a “we.”

Recently I faced having to make a four-figure repair to my 11-year-old car. Upon hearing the shop’s estimate, I wanted to retreat to my room, shed some financial-worry tears, and figure out – on my own – how I was going to pay for it. But sitting on my couch was the man who loves me, waiting and willing to be there for me. I felt so strongly the urge to turn and leave, to be alone in my fear. Instead, I walked toward him, and he reached out his arms and held me. Then he helped me reason things out so I could make the best decision for me and for us.

I’ve spent many years thinking about “I.” Who am I in a family of five sisters? What’s best for me in my career? How do I take care of myself – mind, body and soul – on a daily basis? There is a tradition in some 12-step programs that reads, “Our common welfare should come first; personal progress for the greatest number depends upon unity.” My understanding is that we all win when we put the “we” first.  My fiancé’s 100-year-old grandpa gave us similar advice for our marriage, based on his 68-year experience of shared life with the one he loved. He said that after we say our vows, everything that affects one will also affect the other. I feel myself becoming more careful.

I’m not losing myself or discounting my own needs, rather I’m gratefully discovering what it is like to hold our union as precious. I feel self-full and a little more selfless at the same time. I’ve also decided to add my beloved’s name to mine after we marry. For me, the symbolism is powerful. “I” and “we.”

There is a mysterious connection growing stronger and more fluid between us. We’re growing a “we” and it is a deliberate and beautiful process. I hope this contemplation and practice of “we” in my relationship will also inform how I am in my family, at work, and in the world.


December 13, 2010

I’ve recently come to trust, without a doubt, that God cares about my immense joy. I believed that God would care for my heart with solace, healing, and happiness. What I didn’t quite get, until now, was that God could and would blow my mind with totally unearned levels of grace.

Last Saturday, my beloved boyfriend bent down on one knee and with tears in his eyes, asked me to marry him. And of course I said YES! To know that the man I adore loves me enough to want to spend his life with me… well, it is a profound feeling. When I look at his sweet, handsome face, I am so hopeful about our life together.

I owe God my humility and a huge dose gratitude for bringing into my life someone who fit my soul. I love being alone, yet he has become an integral part of my life and with him, I feel more joy and more peace than I’ve ever known on my own.

As some of you are well aware, I am almost always late, and at the same time, not terribly patient. I believe that despite my periodic emotional questioning as to when my turn would come, God knew that waiting would be oh so good for me. I’ve grown in my capacity to love. I’ve become more whole, whole enough to now merge with another.

I’m convinced that God orchestrated this waiting for just the right man, just the right me and just the right time. I want to say thank you to the Big Powerful Heart for loving me that much.  

And thank you too for being with me on my journey through this blog, and for being out there in the world, vulnerable in your own way.  

When I look at my ring, I feel our love has been there all along. I believe we are meant for each other and that is why it feels so good and so easy to be with him. He is kind to me, even when I send him seven emails about our wedding after he’s worked a 36-hour shift.

Word has it that marriage is hard and the statistics aren’t good. I hope, though, that ours will be filled with wonder and laughter. Now more than ever before, I understand the yearning of same sex couples to marry. This feeling of saying “yes” to formally and reverently binding my life with that of my beloved… anyone who loves another should be able to take this step.

Twelve months ago on my 41st birthday, I declared it would be the Year of Love. Indeed it was, and with more to come! My sweet man’s proposal proved to me that sometimes good things, the things I want more dearly than anything else, really do happen.

A different kind of thanks

November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving might not the best time to talk about evil. Or maybe it is. Perhaps acknowledging what seems lately to be an overabundance of evil in the world makes me even more grateful for the good I do see and the good I can create.

It overwhelms me how huge some problems seem – systems of violence, inequity and greed. Maybe I’m watching too many shockingly real episodes of “The Wire.” Or maybe it’s because my favorite character on “Private Practice,” Charlotte, was brutally raped. In real life, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted every two minutes. My current obsession with the dark side could also be driven by my disbelief at the inequitable opportunities that exist for children to succeed. I need only check the “most viewed” articles in my local paper to see a daily list of shootings, murders and cases of abuse. 

“What a bummer of a message,” you might be saying! I felt the same way the other night while trying to decompress from “The Wire” Season 4. I decided that even though I want to lessen the bad in the world and will work to do so, I can choose to focus on what is good in my life. Sometimes, I just need to notice how pretty the golden leaves are on my street, and take a minute to be in awe at the magnificent full moon or mindlessly silly with my boyfriend. It’s rejuvenating.

I do wish though that God would just eradicate evil – all of it. I’m beginning to wonder if that’s not what God is for. Wouldn’t He have already done so if He were going to? There’s certainly been plenty of monumental suffering in the history of time that could have been stopped were that God’s job.

A friend of mine, a funny, wise, lawyerly woman, believes in the devil. She believes there is a force intentionally creating and orchestrating evil in the world. I’m not quite there yet, but I do think it might just be semantics. I can understand that there are deep psychological and sociological reasons that may cause a person or a society to commit atrocities against other living beings. Even though I understand where it might come from, I will never get over the fact that it actually happens.

Sometimes I think evil exists so that we will continue to evolve as humans into our higher selves. I heard Rob Bell say in an interview, “Your divine calling is to meet the world at its greatest points of suffering.” Maybe God is waiting for us to do the good we are capable of doing. Maybe that’s what we are for.

I believe there are solutions to the issues we face – many have already been identified, just not fully implemented. I think God will indeed help us when we help each other. Maybe this is our job. The point of being here. In the face of evil in our world, we are not helpless and we are not powerless. I’m grateful for that.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Being Careful with Anger

October 27, 2010

After a glorious Sunday spent reading in Byrd Park, it’s hard to believe that just a few days earlier, I was furious. I do remember, though, the visceral feeling that led me to slam my hand down on a table during the heated encounter. And what it felt like to obsess about the issue while turning my usual evening stroll around the neighborhood into a strident march. I went to bed that night with my journal to try to make sense of what happened – and my part in it – by writing it out of my head and onto paper. Yoga the next morning helped to calm me down and bring me some perspective. I knew that no matter what frustrations had come my way, I had not been who I wanted to be in my response.

I hadn’t been “careful with my anger” as a friend had suggested years ago when I first started exploring the benefits and risks of feeling and expressing anger. Sometimes, it’s freeing to do so. Maybe because anger is often just a few steps past passion – a feeling I’m very much in favor of – it seems justified at times. But is it? Isn’t civil society based on our ability to hold back or at least be angry in a respectful, careful manner?

When I tell friends about slamming my cell phone down on the counter after a stressful conversation, they say, “You? I can’t see you doing that.” Last week, I too thought, “Who am I? Who is this person I’m being?” Certainly not the grounded, kind woman I’d like to be. But maybe the anger is also part of me. And it can serve a purpose, as long as I handle it well.

A rising anger in my chest and clenching of my throat tell me when another has crossed my line and is now stepping on my proverbial toes. GET OFF! I want to scream. I don’t; instead, I get quiet and my speech becomes clipped.

After I analyzed my part in the matter – how I was being just as bitchy as I felt the other was being bullish – and confessed my transgressions to my boyfriend, he said, “We all wish we could be more gracious when we’re mad.”

I think there is a time and place for anger that is born in the heart and used selectively, with care for the recipient. In a recent leadership workshop, we were asked to identify qualities of a leader who had made a significant personal impact on us. Among all of my descriptors, I was surprised to find that I had written “anger” as one of the qualities of an inspiring leader.

My high school music teacher, Mr. Pipkin, used to get furious. He once threw a chair across the music room when a student made him particularly mad. Yet his anger seemed warranted and filled with love. He believed in his students. He had high expectations for us, and he got mad when we didn’t rise to meet those expectations. If he thought we were slacking – and he was usually right – he’d get furious. I was scared of that part of him and I loved that about him. I knew how much he cared about us. He fought for us. But he also knew when to let us go.

Toward the end of my senior year, I began pulling away and distancing myself from his care and guidance. I was often snotty to this person who meant the world to me and had seen me through tough times in high school. When he was on his death bed a few years later, I apologized for treating him that way. He couldn’t speak, but he squeezed my hand, which I took as his generous, loving way of saying I didn’t need to apologize. He understood young people.

Unlike my anger last week, Mr. Pipkin’s anger was unselfish. It was born of care. A priest friend was describing for me some of the many ways that God similarly uses anger. I don’t know the sacred texts well enough to quote any of those instances, but I will say that I believe – as you have likely seen – anger can drive necessary change if it is couched in care. I’m not so skilled at this yet, but I’ll keep working on it, and hopefully, I won’t do too much damage in the meantime.

It might actually mean letting myself get messily angry so I can practice a more elegant response. When I think about doing my work in the world, I’d like to use my anger for good in a powerful, passionate, and care-full manner. I’ll let you know how it goes. And if you have thoughts on the subject you’d like to share, I’d love to hear them.

Welcoming the Unknown

September 27, 2010

Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
Above all, trust in the slow work of God

I first heard these lines, written by Jesuit theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, when they were included in a profound sermon given by Brother Geoffrey Tristram. I thought God had spoken directly to me, because it answered the exact yearning of my heart. Trust in the slow work of God, Eleanor. Accept the anxiety of suspense. Trust that there is something necessary happening during this time of not knowing.
It was the first time I had heard the suggestion to accept the anxiety. I’ve always tried to get beyond anxiety as quickly as possible, thinking that peace is where I’m supposed to be. I regularly try to breathe my way, or “yoga” my way, to peace. If I can’t, I call a friend, talk to a coach, write my favorite priest, read a book hoping for insight, or…start trying to control my way out of feeling anxious. By trying to manipulate outcomes or force answers before their time, I often create more of a mess inside and around me.
What I have not done is trust that there is value in the anxiety of not knowing. I don’t have to make it go away. It will go away in its own time, after the work of God is done. Paradoxically, once I start accepting anxiety, it lessens its grip on me.

We are impatient of being on the way
to something unknown,
something new.

Indeed, I’m impatient by nature. If there is change to create in the world, I want it to happen now! If there is love to be experienced, I want to be living all of its glory now! While my belly is full of passion, my heart doesn’t always get it – that not everyone is where I am, when I am. Lately, my head has saved the day, by coming to understand intellectually that abiding love takes time to grow strong roots, and lasting change takes planning, patience and thoughtful execution.

Change within me takes time as well. Many times God has seen me through this familiar struggle to surrender control and accept the anxiety of not knowing how it will turn out. Luckily, God didn’t give up on me in frustration when that fear of the unknown showed up again. Instead, God sent me this poem. I thought I’d share it with you because I think I might finally be getting it.

Do not try to force them on
as though you could be today what time
– that is to say, grace –
and circumstances
acting on your own good will
will make you tomorrow.

– Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.

What are we doing this for?

September 13, 2010

You haven’t heard from me in a while as I haven’t felt ready to publish.

I wrote a piece on Glenn Beck and my realization of how alike we are. Though I have far different opinions than he, I spout them off just as much and often base them on little to no research. There’s too much of that in the world right now.

Then I wrote a piece about saying goodbye, after a dear friend’s father suddenly passed away. How can we possibly say goodbye to those we love the most? And what circumstances are we granted to do so? It was too soon and too personal to send.

So I’ve waited. Waited until new inspiration came.

And it did, in a Washington, DC yoga class. In tree pose, to be exact. Now, usually, in tree pose, I’ve had too much iced green tea to be able to balance, or my head is spinning with thought and I can’t focus. Tonight was markedly different. Earlier in the day I had toured the National Cathedral with my boyfriend. We walked slowly through detail after detail of beauty, dedication, and devotion to God. A place where people of all faiths, or no faith, are welcome to pray, to wonder or just be reverent.

I thought of the cathedral while I was in tree pose. “Do this for God.” My standing foot pressed more firmly into the Earth, my hip relaxed, my hands reached higher above my head, and a calm strength spread through my body. When my teacher asked us to look up to the sky, I didn’t fall.

I’ve been thinking about this lately – doing something for a purpose larger than myself rather than for my desire for praise. I’ve come to discover that when I do things to gain someone’s favor, be it my yoga teacher, my colleagues, my boyfriend, or God, it doesn’t really work out so well. I trip up. I start thinking I have to be perfect or I will lose something precious.

I’ve come to believe that it’s my effort and my intent that matter. Not perfection. Effort to follow God’s will and not my own in a relationship. Intent to do my job well for the good of children, not the praise of others. Effort to stay in tree pose – even if I fall out.

Part of what inspired me at the National Cathedral is that no part of its design was too small for dedication. Every corner, inside and out, was hand carved for a purpose. Not to please God, but for God.

When I’m able to make the switch from doing something for a lesser motive to doing it for God, I feel an immediate, visceral difference. I exhale. I let go of control. I’m easier on myself and more in sync with the natural flow of life. This is my source of living, working and loving with gentle strength and less ego.

What would feel different for you if you did it for a greater purpose? I’d love to know.


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