Cleaning House in Advent and Lent

I’ve been told that Advent is supposed to be a little Lent. I heard it for the first time last year and my whole being gave a resounding NO. Lent is penitential. Lent is struggle. Lent is hard. That’s not how Advent is supposed to be, right? Maybe it’s because of where I grew up, maybe it’s because my all time favorite sister’s birthday is Christmas Day, but starting November 1st there’s only one thing I want to ask every. single. person.

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However, while there are problems with this attitude, in a sense it is the main point of Advent. Are you ready for Christmas? Have you prepared for Christ? That second question is what finally connected Lent and Advent for me. Both Lent and Advent are times of spiritual preparation and cleansing, even though they feel very different. I’ve found the best way to understand their differences and similarities is to compare them to cleaning my house.

Lent is like a deep, Spring clean (how nice that they occur in the same season!). It’s when you are sitting on your couch and notice that corner that you forgot existed and is full of cobwebs. You clean those, and then realize the baseboards that used to be white are now… not white. After cleaning those you realize something else is dirty and clean that and the cycle continues till your house is once again ready for Better Homes. Lent is when we deep clean our souls because they need it. Advent, while similar, is slightly different.

Advent is like when my bestie, Katie, comes to visit. I make sure everything is spotless, I put out new throw pillows, I make sure the house smells nice, and when it gets close to time for her to be there I can’t stop looking out the window for her. It is definitely not the deep clean I described before, though that process may show me a dirty corner or two that I need to address, but it is a cleansing and a ‘zhuj-ing’.

Lent is a deep cleaning out of necessity, Advent is cleaning in preparation and anticipation. We are naturally excited during this time, but we shouldn’t forget to prepare for the One who is coming.

It makes me think of last week’s Gospel. We prepare, so that we can watch.

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And we’re back in 3… 2…

Hello! It’s been entirely too long since I last posted. Life went a little topsy turvy, as it tends to do, and I had to let some things drop for a little while, just to keep everything balanced. To be fully honest, things have been balanced for a little while now, but everything is also very different and since August, I no longer knew where to go with this blog. I’ll try and give a quick re-cap.

To begin with, I should have known that major life changes were headed our way. We were living in Cambridge/Boston, in an utterly gorgeous apartment, going out with friends to really nice restaurants, traveling around the NorthEast, essentially LIVING THE LIFE.  Everything felt REALLY cushy and glamorous and luxurious and – I could go on, but you get it.

Well, one day, and I can’t remember if it was over breakfast or after work, over coffee or after wine but, my incredible husband was in the kitchen and was trying to express this mysterious dissatisfaction that he couldn’t shake, and the only way he could express it was –

“There is just not enough struggle in my life.”

I mean really. Who even says things like that?! But I knew what he meant. I knew EXACTLY what he meant. We both follow the life philosophy that at least a little discomfort is required for growth, but at the time we were SO comfortable, that there was no growth. We were TOO comfortable. We couldn’t grow. In an odd way, our comfort made us uncomfortable.

How’s that for a paradox?

Afterwards, we had countless late night discussions and coffee-fueled, brain-storming sessions about what we needed and wanted in order to live our fullest life. We thought about giving it all up and joining the tiny house movement. We talked about how deeply we want to start a homestead one day, how we envision raising a family, how much we missed the faith community we had left. We realized, that all of the possible paths from our brainstorming sessions started with the same first step, Ryan leaving his job.

However, once we came to that conclusion I had this one line from Midnight in Paris constantly replaying in my head.

“Do you really want to give it all up just to struggle?”

We did. We very desperately did. We needed to go home. We needed to go back to the place where we’d met, grown closer to God, gotten married, and get our feet back under us. So we did. We left Boston, went to Ireland and Scotland (honeymoon) for a couple weeks, and then came back to Gainesville. Things were extra-ordinarily crazy for awhile, but they are getting calmer and calmer by the day.

We started this blog for two reasons. One, was as a mental exercise of sharing our ideals and faith with ‘the world’ (or just our moms. which ever happens to be reading). The other was an effort to continue conversation with the community that we’d left. Now that we’re back, for months I was no longer sure what or how to write. However, at least for the sake of the mental exercise and in the hope of creating a broader conversation, we’re continuing. We’ll keep posting about our adventures, our faith, and our thoughts.

Who knows, maybe it’ll add just the right amount of struggle 😉

-Sarah

 

 

Pollock, Picasso and me

 

The most powerful truth about art is that it is immediately accessible. Sometimes it seems there is a mystique around ‘fine’ art, turning it into something that can only be enjoyed by the initiated while the rest of us remained puzzled and disconnected. However, art is not just experienced intellectually, it is felt and our unique perspective produces a unique response. People assign value to art not just because of the skill or technique but because of the story behind it. An incredible example is Jackson Pollock, who is most famous for his drip period in the late 1940s. His audiences responded with complete rejection to raucous applause and for me it started with skepticism. Superficially these pieces looked like a toddler-fueled chaos of paint spills and splatters. What was even more interesting was how people found so much meaning and detail in what appeared to be the random spattering of paint.

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Number 10, 1949, Jackson Pollock

Over time my narrow perspective was broadened and reflection on this art and abstract expressionism allowed abstraction to affect my own art.  I have been looking at his paintings in museums all over from the Met to the National Gallery of Art and most recently the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In this recent visit, Pollock was featured alongside Picasso. Picasso was a prolific artist who proved himself with striking talent at a young age, but was motivated by Matisse to experiment and be more radical with his style. He went on to  contribute to many revolutionary movements in the first half of the 20th century, perhaps most notably cubism. Quite a different pedigree but in his work alongside Pollock their mutual connection to abstraction is clear. Abstraction is freedom from the representational qualities of paintings, from something that looks like a photograph. Among Picasso’s exhibited work was the bull series, an incredible collection studied for its revelation of the artistic process through a series of progressive abstractions. Starting with a fairly realistic depiction of a bull, it evolves through a stylized abstraction until it is embodied by just a few lines.

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El Toro, Pablo Picasso

My own art has taken all kinds of turns and developments, and like me it has evolved and hardly even resembles it’s beginning. This painting represents an experimentation into the abstract, a pure creative release in a stressful time in my life. I was moving into a much smaller apartment and wouldn’t have room for some found furniture. In an act of defiance I removed the legs from the Ikea coffee table and turned the top into a canvas. It became a wonderful symbol of frivolity as I struggled through balancing graduate school and work in my cramped apartment. I never even gave it a title and actually I think it’s rather fitting. I have my own feelings and inspirations, but I’ll let you experience it without too much of my own biases.

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Untitled, Ryan Nixon

The Rogue Scone Recipe

In my last post, I mentioned how I am not the Queen of Breakfast, but I am determined to gain citizenship there. After coming clean about my difficulties flipping an egg, which I’m slowly getting better at, I decided that I would force myself to step things up right away, and make something awesome – something like ham and cheese scones.

Now, there are two things you should know about me. 1) I have never made scones in my life, and 2) both my sister and I are plagued by this really rare mental condition where we are completely incapable of following a recipe. No recipe, no matter how beloved or well-known, is safe from our modifications.

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My sister (right), who has never met a recipe that didn’t need a change or seven

With all of that in mind, it actually went really well! I started with a recipe for Ham and Cheese scones from DamnDelicious (and the name really does suit their recipes by the way, in case anyone is looking for a cooking blog) that I had been wanting to try for ages, but subbed in turkey bacon for the ham and green onions for the chives because green onions were on sale and chives were not. I also had some tomatoes that I needed to cook so I sautéed them till they were nice and broken down and threw them in as well.

See what I mean about modifications?

Other than that, I followed the recipe EXACTLY, which is where I hit a bit of a speed bump. See, the recipe called for ¾ cup of buttermilk, but when I added the tomatoes that added moisture so I should have kept right on modifying and lessened the buttermilk.

As a result, my scones were not crumbly the way scones were supposed to be, but like very dense, very moist biscuits – moist, pizza-cheezit flavored bisuits, but tasty none the less.

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Rogue Scone

Someone please send me fun breakfast ideas and tips 🙂

Sarah

Sacrificial love

“The way we came to know love was that he laid down his life for us; so we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” 1 John 3:16 NABRE

Can you think of a time when you were in a position directly choosing between your own comfort, agendas or even health in favor of helping another? I am met with at least one of these opportunities every day, and I have become increasingly aware of them.

The idea of sacrificial love has come up a lot lately. The many tasks and goals that I’ve set for myself in the last month have brought me up against my limitations and sometimes brought me to complete exhaustion and pain. In these trying moments there have been times where my wife has wanted or needed me to continue to sacrifice, so that together we can complete tasks from weddings, PhDs, moving or even to provide her the emotional support she needs. Daily, I am faced with instances where I must consciously choose the good of another in direct contradiction to my own good. Sometimes I choose the other, sometimes I choose the self. I feel that I do choose the other often and as I become aware of each act of sacrificial, self-denying love I feel greater fulfillment and I am encouraged toward a love greater still.

I was slow to realize the virtue of self-sacrifice and in fact, one of the biggest challenges for people in our over-engaged, over-stimulated world is learning how and when to say no to people asking for our attention. The ability to say no is a necessary skill and in our culture of endless opportunities, it is important to understand our limits and manage our commitments; only then can we maintain a sustained engagement in our life’s primary direction or vocation. This constant demand on our attention and resources can be met with an over-reaction, leading people to retreat into themselves and prioritize their own needs and wants over others. The problem with this type of reaction is that we begin to start looking at people in terms of what they can do for us, or how they can return favors. However, it has become clear to me from the continued practice of the Catholic faith that love, and indeed a sacrificial love, is the greatest fulfillment our lives. In fact, in all things we are striving to emulate the love of Christ, a perfect and self-giving love. As S.t John reminded us, Christ became the example of love through surrender and self-sacrifice, redeeming all of humanity as a suffering servant.

I can think of a few examples in my own life when I was confronted with this choice for sacrificial love, but there are two that stand out in my mind. In 2006, I had been working as a missionary on a Navajo reservation in Arizona. While I encountered many different people in great need of food, housing and any comfort they could get, there was one woman that I will never forget. At this time in my life, I had become accustomed to pre-packaged answers to common questions and habitual prayers that were safe to say in public, and even during my time as a missionary, I managed to stay relatively secure within my comfort zone, building hogons for a homeless family on the reservation, and watching after the children during Sunday services. In short, I was complacent. While counseling and feeding the homeless displaced Navajo on the streets of Winslow, AZ, a woman reached out and grabbed my hand, explained to me that all of her family had passed, leaving her alone, homeless and hungry. She pleaded with me to pray for her, a genuine plea for help. In this moment any material and intellectual assets I thought I had, dissolved away and I was put in a position where it was necessary to live out my faith in an unexpected and uncomfortable way. I had endeavored to cultivate leadership qualities. From my time in the Air Force, fraternity life, student government and countless other mentorship opportunities, I had tried to serve others. However, in this moment the inadequacy of serving people’s physical needs became undeniably clear. With such an authentic need, I wanted to help in any way I could and my only recourse was prayer. I was put in a position that exposed my vulnerability in a moment of earnest, heart-felt prayer.

This moment revealed a flaw in my world-view and while I had begun to explore some of the lesser developed dimensions of my character, like emotional or spiritual intelligence, my over-focus on the physical and intellectual had suddenly became stark. In order to serve others and to live out the fundamental call of my faith, it was necessary to seek a holistic development. St. Paul’s words rang in my ears  to “be all things to all” (1 cor 9:19-22). I needed to find new deeper ways to empathize with my brother, to understand different perspectives, and to be an instrument that points to the transcendent truth we are all looking for. Sacrificing my own needs and traveling into the desert to serve others, led me to this moment, where all of my advanced education and training abandoned me. I turned to God in complete dependence and petitioned him on her account, so I could be what this woman truly needed.

More recently, I was walking home after a day of work in Cambridge. My wife, Sarah, had joined me for an after-work soiree and we were walking home. Since my motorcycle accident two years ago, I have had mobility issues and consistent pain in my knee. I was beginning to feel the fatigue and the resulting strains on my fledgling ACL and was resolute to maintain my pace and make it home before I degraded into a full-on limp. I had a legitimate concern for my health and when Sarah began to fall behind I encouraged her to pick up the pace and pressed on. Before I realized it, I had left her behind and made it to our house well before she did. Now, she was essentially safe in a well lit and policed public area, but that did not help her feelings of abandonment and exposure. I could have chosen her needs and put her comfort, safety, and emotional well-being before myself, but I didn’t. After a candid and somewhat contentious discussion over the next day or so, I was humbled, and the choice I had been presented with became more clear. I was faced with this issue, choose the self or chose the other and I had chose myself. While it was perhaps understandable and even rational, I missed an opportunity to grow in a new way as yet unseen.

This happens everytime we walk by someone who is clearly in need and they ask for help. Does it make you uncomfortable? What is the right response? What should we aspire to? Inspired by the teaching of Jesus in Matt 25 and the Church’s subsequent articulation in the corporal and spiritual acts of mercy we are shown acts of charity that help fulfill our neighbor’s bodily and spiritual needs. James 1 says that “pure” religion is “caring for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Ultimately, we should pay more attention to these opportunities to practice sacrificial love and put others before ourselves. These continued acts of self-sacrifice is how we unite with God’s purpose and answer St. Paul’s exhortation:

“I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” Rom 12:1-2 NABRE