New and Improved: Always We Begin Again

The most used words in marketing campaigns and on product packaging are new and improved. This expression taps into our deepest desires to improve our lives and our circumstances. Marketers know this—that most of us want better and that we want to BE better, to be more of this or less of that—and so come the advertisements for weight loss, exercise facilities, home improvement, travel and more. Of course, the superficial and material never satisfy and leave us still wanting more, or less.

The essence of making New Year’s resolutions—everything from setting financial, career and relationship goals to considering new ways of being and doing—is that we desperately seek the chance to “do over.” It might sound elementary, and even impossible, but we long for it anyway.

Celebrating the beginning of a new year is a reminder of our opportunity to “always begin again”—the embodiment of Being Benedictine. It’s not as simple as a “do over” but January 1, merely just one day that follows December 31, gives us a definitive time and space to honor our deepest longing to begin again.

always begin again

I’ve long since quit making resolutions. Well, not really—I make them and break them so quickly and consistently, that I’ve chosen to look at them more gently, as beginning again. Each year I select a word that will help guide me in the New Year.

I share my last three years of words that have served me far beyond the year they were chosen for—mercy, gentle and cushion. The intention of these simple words has seeped into my spirit in a way that makes me new and improved in the deepest sense.

Mercy

What powerful images Pope Francis brought to this word when he declared a Jubilee Year of Mercy in 2016 and captured in a SoulCollage® card that I made to remember that year. We are received just as the Prodigal Son was received, with open and forgiving arms. The image of the Prodigal Son conveys all of the qualities of mercy that we hope to receive and strive to give: compassion, tenderness, love, and acceptance. In our thoughts, words, and actions, towards ourselves and others, we have a new day to try again to give and receive the mercy that God has given us. We are not perfect; we need to forgive ourselves and others again and again, but the doors are always open for us to begin again in light of Christ. Read more at Always, We Begin Again.

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Mercy SoulCollage Card

Gentle

There is an endless list of shoulds, musts, shouldn’ts, can’ts, more of this or less of that,  that could be the foundation of a New Year’s resolution. But for 2017, I resolved not to resolve anything but to be excessively gentle with myself instead. Resolve, itself, is such a dogged, unwavering word, so I called this “being gentle” my un-resolution. In a series of SoulCollage® reflections, I asked myself—How can I learn to be more gentle with myself and others? This process was so revealing and healing. I learned through images that I don’t have to “wear” everything I’m given. Perhaps the old and worn, even the cherished, can be hung up for a while; not discarded, but set aside. One cannot keep wearing what is from the past; sometimes we just need to hang it up, to let it rest. Our shadow side can be carried in the heart as shame unless we practice being excessively gentle. Read more at Be Excessively Gentle: A New Year’s Un-Resolution

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“Hang It Up” SoulCollage Card

Cushion

Perhaps, a funny word next to the more sober “mercy”, but I chose the word cushion for 2018 to represent balance, an invaluable tool of Benedictine spirituality. When seeking a balance between the seemingly opposite speaking and silence, being together and alone, between activity and rest, prayer and work, I consider how to create a cushion. The connection between these two good options is the word “and”, not “or”. We need both. We need balance, yes, but we can give ourselves a cushion, the opportunity to rest knowing that perfection is not expected. We listen. We act. We pray. We readjust. “This is how a Benedictine’s day is. It is always changing, alternating—praying, working, resting. This is captured in the Benedictine motto, pray and work…The most important word is ‘and’.” –Fr. Mauritius Wilde Read more at 2018 Word of the Year…drumroll, please

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Cushion SoulCollage Card–Word for 2018

There is nothing magical about these words and there is no guarantee that one or any other will be the secret to creating a new and improved you, but I have found this process of choosing a word to be integral to my journey of seeking God, peace, and joy in a world of uncertainty.

May your New Year bring you the mercy, cushion and excessive gentleness that you need. As you journey through the joys and inevitable sorrows of the next year may you find meaning in the words of John O’Donohue— “At first your thinking will darken / And sadness take over like listless weather. The flow of unwept tears will frighten you. / You have traveled too fast over false ground; Now your soul has come to take you back…Draw alongside the silence of stone until its calmness can claim you. Be excessively gentle with yourself.” –an excerpt from “A Blessing for One Who is Exhausted”

What word resonates with you? Will you pick a word for 2019? Consider creating an image that captures the essence of your word. Please share your word or image in comments!

For 2019, I have selected not just one word, but a phrase instead. “You are free” is a phrase given to me that I’ve been meditating on and practicing with for several months. It has seeped into my being and doing just like my other words. I’ve created a collage that captures what freedom might feel like.  I will share more soon!

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I am FREE!

 

Freedom’s Light Burning Warm

This Independence Day, I listened to the Neil Diamond classic, “America,” a song that pays tribute to his grandmother who emigrated to the United States from Russia in the early 1900s,  reflecting on my own heritage, family, and country. We performed this song as the choir finale during my 9th-grade year at Pound Junior High, dancing in the aisles, shining little flashlights (circa 1980.) I felt so proud of the United States of America and the light of freedom it provided.

… Far
We’ve been traveling far
Without a home
But not without a star
Free
Only want to be free
We huddle close
Hang on to a dream

They’re coming to America today!

On a recent country drive, I passed through Prague, Nebraska, the small town near where my mother was born. I made a quick stop to purchase some freshly made kolaches, a traditional Czech fruit-filled pastry.

 

I also drove up and down the streets, noticing particularly the intersection of Elba and Moravia. Many of the town residents can trace their family roots back to Czechoslovakia and the Bohemia and Moravia regions. I imagined those first Czech immigrants who came to Nebraska—the familiar names and food of their homeland must have given them comfort, even as they sought a fresh beginning in this new country. The famous Nebraskan author Willa Cather wrote, “If security could ever have a smell, it would be the fragrance of a warm kolache.”

As a fourth generation immigrant, I am grateful their heritage was kept alive. My great-grandfather, Frank Blazek, arrived at Ellis Island in 1906 on the Barbarosa ship, not knowing a single soul or a speck of English. He came with only his work ethic and the desire for freedom and a prosperous life. He never saw the parents and siblings he left behind again. His family became his wife, Carrie Pekarek, and their six children—Lod (my grandfather), Rosalie, Frances, Bessie, and twins, Louis and Lillian. If he only knew that his great- and great-great-grandchildren would become park rangers, counselors, graphic artists, law enforcement officers, attorneys, biologists, bankers, teachers and more—I imagine he would have been surprised.

Bararosa

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Frank Blazek, Carrie Pekarak and wedding party, 1909.

We are mothers and fathers, town and city dwellers, Republican and Democrat, Catholic and Protestant, single, married, divorced and re-married, high school graduates and college-educated. Most of us have stayed in Nebraska, some have moved out of state, a few have studied and traveled abroad. Each of us, offspring from a blacksmith shop owner named Frank, who until his dying day spoke mostly Czech, with his wife being his connection to the English-speaking world.

 

Photos: Frank Blazek’s Blacksmith shop (and advertisement) Weston, Nebraska 1908-1931.

When I traveled to the Czech Republic, I was shocked how the Czech traditions I had grown up with were not as apparent as I expected, sabotaged of their significance by World War II and the takeover by communists.

Czech Republic
Photos: It was surreal to see the Blazek name on a WWII war memorial in Telc, Czech Republic; likely not relation with spelling change from Frank Blazik to Blazek in America. Czech countryside resembles the area near Prague, Nebraska referred to as the Bohemian Alps.

All the more important, I realized, it is to preserve our heritage or it will die—a little more with each person who passes from this world. My dad, Tom Blazek, played his part by writing the book, My Valparaiso I and II, capturing the history of his hometown, Valparaiso, Nebraska, and the many families who lived there.

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To purchase either book, see the Valparaiso, Nebraska Memories Facebook Page.

Connecting to our heritage does not mean that we are stuck in the past; rather, it allows us to embrace where we came from as well as being open to new beginnings. My cousin, Mike, demonstrates this poignantly. Recently, he purchased my grandma’s old house, the house she bought after my grandfather, Lod, passed away. This tiny house packed three generations (my grandma, her five sons, their wives and seven cousins) in to celebrate every holiday.

 

Photos: My grandma, Helen Blazek and the seven grandchildren that celebrated every Christmas in the tiny house. Circa 1974.

Mike tore the house down to its frame and rebuilt it piece by piece with his own hands—new walls, floors, ceilings, windows, everything. Mike and I reflected that it feels a little smaller to us now, but it never felt small or crowded to us then. We had family and traditions and that was plenty.

 

The before photos: Mike Blazek, my cousin, tears grandma’s house down to the frame to rebuild.

I love how Mike has honored our grandmother and the family she nurtured, while also creating a new beginning for himself (just as she had done.) Sometimes we must tear things down to the foundation to begin again. He preserved the old and created the new; we need both.

 

The After Photos: Mike’s house after working on it for over a year. 

“As we grow older we have more and more people to remember, people who have died before us. It is very important to remember those who have loved us and those we have loved. Remembering them means letting their spirits inspire us in our daily lives. They can become part of our spiritual communities and gently help us as we make decisions on our journeys… Remembering the dead is choosing their ongoing companionship.” Henri J. M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey

 

Photos: Frank Blazek, my great-grandfather, was called “Doda” by all the grandchildren. 

In the spirit of remembering, my dad has gathered many memories, photos and artifacts into a family history. As I read the correspondence of postcards across the sea from father to son, sister to brother, I consider the immigration crisis my country, and many countries around the world, face today.

 

Postcard on left: My beloved brother! Another year has passed, your dear name day, your whole family wishes you what is best for every person, mostly health in your family circle. I have been able to live to this day. Wishes your sister, Marie Kytokova 10/10/62 Breelev  Other postcards sent from the home country through the years. 

 

My dad writes, “Now…everyone is protesting immigrants coming to America. We must remember we wouldn’t be here if our grandpa wasn’t one of those immigrants. (We) are lucky; we were born in America thanks to Frank Blazek. No one can tell us to go back where we came from like immigrants are told now.” 

My prayer for this Independence Day and for the tumultuous political environment we are in:

May we remember the courage it took for our ancestors and forefathers to seek freedom.

May we be compassionate to all those seeking freedom and safety today.

May we be the light—in our lives and in this country—a shining star for all.

May we recognize when we need a new beginning, a fresh start.

May we not cling to the past, but preserve it gently in our memory, keeping the richness of our heritage alive.

On the boats and on the planes
They’re coming to America
Never looking back again
They’re coming to America

Home, don’t it seem so far away
Oh, we’re traveling light today
In the eye of the storm
In the eye of the storm

Home, to a new and a shiny place
Make our bed, and we’ll say our grace
Freedom’s light burning warm
Freedom’s light burning warm

Everywhere around the world
They’re coming to America
Every time that flag’s unfurled
They’re coming to America

Got a dream to take them there
They’re coming to America

#KnowYourNeighbor

freedoms light

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Always We Begin Again

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“Always we begin again.” –St. Benedict

I just started my 39th semester of teaching.  I love the “beginning again” that comes with the teaching profession.  Two of my favorite things about teaching are discovering new ways to share the love of learning with students and the chance to start the next semester with a clean slate. Fresh ideas, new teaching strategies, another opportunity to grow and learn and improve—and hoping a little of that rubs off on my students. I want to make a difference and help students learn.

I think I’m still learning that I will never get it just right. I will never be perfect. But I love that I can be creative each day, trying new things, forgiving myself for what doesn’t work and starting over again the next day, week or semester.

 It’s a good reminder for everyday life as well.  So often in our relationships we carry the mistakes, hurts, expectations and fears into our next day; never really giving others, or ourselves, a chance to begin again.

What if we could truly give ourselves and others a clean slate? A fresh start?

What if we really could be merciful…compassionate, gentle, loving, understanding, kind, accepting, giving, patient, forgiving INSTEAD OF cold-hearted, impatient, irritated, withholding, reluctant, hard, thoughtless, self-centered, judgmental?

Being merciful means allowing ourselves and others the chance to begin again. How do we get there…to being more merciful?

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This year, Pope Francis  has declared a Jubilee or Holy Year of Mercy. He believes we need a  “revolution of tenderness”—between nations and in our personal relationships.

revolution4“How much I desire that the year to come will be steeped in mercy, so that we can go out to every man and woman, bringing the goodness and tenderness of God,” he wrote. He believes it is time for the Church to show her motherly face to a humanity that is wounded.”

What powerful images Pope Francis brings to this word we all too often use, but do not understand or practice: MERCY. A chance to begin again.

For Christmas, I wanted to create a SoulCollage® card for my monk friends at Christ the King Priory that represented the season. I gathered images that seemed Christmas-y and tried to bring them into unity on a card.  But it just wasn’t working; images that called to me instead kept saying MERCY. So I went with it. I let the word and idea of mercy flow over me and into the creation. The process of creating was prayerful and inspired and joyful. The card and words that follow are the result:

mercy

A gesture, an embrace, a tender gaze
Lays bare every vein, wrinkle, pore and blade.
In the Light, transparent and humbled,
We are seen, truly seen.

Despite our failures and flights,
Doors of mercy open to
Eternal love made visible. 

Pope Francis believes, “The most important thing in the life of every man and every woman is not that they should never fall along the way, the important thing is always to get back up.”

May we take this word and image, MERCY, into our year and our lives. The doors are always open for us to begin again. We are received just as the Prodigal Son was received, with open and forgiving arms. The image of the Prodigal Son, created by Rembrandt, communicates both the motherly and fatherly qualities of a God who welcomes us all home. It conveys all of the qualities of mercy that we hope to receive and can strive to give: compassion, tenderness, love and acceptance.

In our thoughts, words and actions, towards ourselves and others, we have a new day to try again to give and receive the mercy that God has given us.

Each new day is a new day.  Always we begin again.

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