Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Inhale, Exhale

One of my good friends recently asked why I hadn't written any blog posts in a while. I admitted that even though I really enjoy writing in this manner, I just hadn't had the time. "I guess I've felt too busy with life," I said, "I haven't had much breathing room."

"So why don't you write exactly that?" she asked.

Somehow the question startled me. What I had revealed in my simple sharing was not something profound or insightful. It was just a real and honest answer about how I'd been feeling lately. But her question made me wonder: Why not write about something so real and honest?

Sometimes I trick myself into believing that my every blog post has to be some lofty sharing resulting in all sorts of "aha" moments. It doesn't make my posts less authentic, but it does keep me from writing about other topics that I feel aren't as enticing or interesting. Which makes me wonder if I do the same with myself. Do I share only the parts of me that I feel are exciting and interesting? With whom do I share my simple, real, and honest self?

I suppose that's what made my friend's question so startling. I wasn't planning on sharing my simple self. Her question was the impetus that made me ask, Why not? Why not share what's simple?

My life might look exciting to people from the outside. If you look me up on the internet I bet you'll find my various social media accounts; my photo and bio on a website or two; and a number of videos that myself or other organizations have produced. I've been asked to speak for different conferences and with groups of all ages; I have been offered some intriguing job positions; and I have been invited to write reflections on a variety of topics for some wonderful Catholic organizations. But the internet cannot show you who is underneath all of that.

Underneath the media spotlights and before all the labels - Sister, Catholic, Person of Color - I will always simply be Desiré.

I still get overwhelmed. I still wake up sometimes and say to myself, "I wish all of it would just stop." I get tired of the phone and the computer and the work. I get tired of trying and tired of doing. I get tired. I am human.

There are days you'll see me smile and say, "Now there's a woman who loves life." And you would be correct. I do love my life. I love this life. But loving this life doesn't mean I'll always be smiling. It doesn't mean I'll never get tired. I know I will keep going. I will keep working for justice and praying for peace. I will keep learning and unlearning so that I can be better and love better. I will keep getting out of bed, even when it takes me longer than I'd like it to some days. I will keep loving this life, and I will keep giving love in whatever way I can.

But I will still be me. I will still be human and simple and real. I will still have great days and hard days. I will still wish I'd said, "No" to something I just agreed to do while attempting to keep my eyes open on yet another Zoom call.

I may be a smiling Black Catholic Felician Sister with over 4,000 followers on Instagram, but I am still simply human me. There will still be plenty of times I struggle to stop and remind myself: Breathe. Inhale. Exhale. Just breathe.

We all have permission to be human, to be in love with life and to be worn out by it at the same time. That's why we all need reminders to breathe. Maybe this is your reminder, too.

Inhale. Exhale.

Sister Desiré Anne-Marie Findlay

Thursday, July 23, 2020

I Don't See Color

"I don't see color."

Is that so?

I know I don't speak for all people of color, but for myself and many others, this statement is not consoling. When you tell me you don't see my color, is it because I am invisible to you? Or is it because you would rather not see what makes us different?

I have no problem with my skin color nor do I have a problem with being different. The danger of desiring sameness is that people often mistake sameness for unity. We don't have to be the same to be united. Celebrating diversity is much more beneficial than trying to pretend it doesn't exist.

I realize that some people will say they don't see my color as a way of saying they see beyond the color of my skin. I get it. But I still don't find it comforting. Here's why: my color is part of what makes me who I am. It has shaped my experiences in this world and therefore has shaped my ways of understanding myself and the world. It has also pushed me to be more courageous and outspoken on matters of injustice.

I want you to see my heart, but I also want you to see my color - it contains layers of beautiful cultures that I inherited from my ancestors. I am proud of where I come from and of the people who created the skin tone I now wear. I have roots in Nigeria, Trinidad and Tobago, the Indigenous Americas and Spain. Just as I am proud to be a woman - and to have a heart that loves with a feminine strength - so too does my heart pound with the strength of those who came before me. Why would I deny my heritage, or let anyone else deny it?

I also want you to see my color because there are so many ways that the American culture tries to stomp it out or push it down.

As a dancer, I regularly had to buy make-up and clothing for performances. I didn't notice until I was a young adult that the color described as "nude" was a problem. This "color" didn't match my nude, but somehow it was the default. So what did this say to me in the world of dance and beauty? As a woman with darker skin, the message was clear: "Your color doesn't belong here." That created a problem not just for the way I saw myself, but for the way others would see me. What do you think that says to little girls and young women who are "white"? It tells them they are the default, the preferred, that they belong. But it also says that anyone who isn't like them doesn't belong. This is how racist attitudes are born without it even being taught at home. So unless parents are actually attentive to things like that and discuss it with their children, the idea of "I belong, but other colors don't" remains the norm.

Think about other labels, too. I use the term "African-American" because that's the blanket term used to describe anyone who's black and born in America. But that leaves out other parts of me that are equally as important. In addition, have you ever noticed that people of European descent don't have to check off boxes on official forms that say "Polish-American" or "German-American"? Why not? Why does their box just say "white"? To me terms like "African-American" or "Asian-American" are terms used to label others as if to say, "You don't belong. You are not from here. You are only part American." Just a gentle reminder: most of us are not from here. So why not call out ALL of us who originated from somewhere else?

This brings me to reflect on two concepts that I've recently learned about: racism as America's original sin, and the fact that race doesn't even exist.

The best I can do to explain these concepts is to refer to https://www.racepowerofanillusion.org where you can find an interview with Audrey Smedley, author of Race in North America: Origins of a Worldview. In the interview, Smedley speaks of the greed on which America was built, as well as the reason behind separating Irish indentured servants and African slaves who had once lived together harmoniously without the need to differentiate between "race". Essentially, Smedley explains how race was created as a way to keep power in the hands of some and out of the hands of others.

I invite you to read the above-mentioned article in order to gain a deeper understanding of race and racism - of how race was created and why, and how it leads to the ways in which we see each other now. What I wish to say about how others might see me is that I do not have a problem with the color of my skin. What makes me angry is the idea that to some, the color of my skin is a problem. So the next time you walk past a group of black teenagers, pay attention to where your mind goes. Does it go there when you walk past a group of white teenagers? Or when you see a black woman upset about the way she or her loved ones are being treated, must she be stereotyped as an angry black woman? Or can she be allowed to stand up for herself and others?

It's all about paying attention. Pay attention to how people of color are portrayed in movies, the news, etc. because what we see shapes our way of thinking whether we realize it or not. As long as we pay attention, we are able to see not beyond the color, but beyond the prejudices and stereotypes about the color.

This is why representation matters. To see myself represented in a positive light - such as in sacred art featuring people with various cultural backgrounds - it says to me, "You can achieve this. You can be holy, good, worthy. You can be a leader." Not only that, but for people of all colors to be represented in images of holiness and authority says to each of us, "People who are different than me can achieve this, too. They can be holy, good, worthy. They can be leaders."

The way I see myself is important. But the way we see others is what changes the world.

Choosing to Journey in Hope,
Sister Desiré Anne-Marie Findlay, CSSF

Photo by Taleisha Goodson (feat. her daughter)

Photo by Taleisha Goodson used with permission
Instagram: @taleishagoodson

Friday, June 5, 2020

A Letter from the Only African-American Felician Sister

As a woman of color living in the United States, who is woefully underrepresented within my own religious community, there are times when I feel uniquely seen and heard. Sometimes I am invited onto particular committees or into particular groups both inside and outside of my community because of the color of my skin. My opinion is sought on topics that have to do with culture, diversity, and representation, which gives me a valuable opportunity to speak up on matters concerning people of color. However, there are other excruciating times when I feel invisible, like right now.

I don’t blame you. I do feel the need to say something. There are plenty of prayers being invoked for an end to the violence of the riots. That’s good. Riots are scary and harmful. I’m just wondering where the prayers were for Ahmaud Arbery and his family, or Breonna Taylor and her family, or George Floyd and his family? That is why I feel invisible. All those who are praying for an end to the riots did not seem to notice that there was violence before this violence. A riot, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “is the language of the unheard.”

So now we have looting and violent riots, but even still, most of the protests taking place are peaceful. I have seen videos of people standing in front of stores to block others from causing destruction. Other videos show hundreds, even thousands, of peaceful protesters marching together. If black people are rioting, it is out of the wounds caused by centuries – CENTURIES – of injustice, brutality, and murder based on a prejudice which intends to rob us of our dignity. But if you look closely enough, beyond the prejudice perpetuated by the media, you will see plenty of white people causing destruction. Are they angry too? Do they think they’re helping? Or do they simply want to give our cry for justice a bad name? I do not know, but what I do know is that praying for an end to violence needs to go beyond the riots.

Praying for peace needs to include a prayer to end violence by police officers towards black people; the end of violence by those who judge black people negatively based on the color of our skin; and an end to the violent mindsets that dehumanize black people, immigrants, natives, and people from developing countries. This prayer needs to break open the hearts and minds of those who do not view their privilege as a threat or a problem. Complacency and silence concerning matters of injustice toward the marginalized creates a burden of pain that the marginalized can carry for only so long. Complacency and silence have no place in Christianity.

I am not condoning the violence of riots, nor am I saying that all police officers are corrupt. Only one police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd, but where were the voices of the other three? Silence is complicity. That is why all four police officers have now been charged in the death of Mr. Floyd. If the privileged had not been silent all these years, we would not need to be praying for an end to riots. Unfortunately, I know there will be a next time. Please, the next time we say, “I can’t breathe,” we need you to hear us, cry out with us and be compelled to act on our behalf.

Yours in faith, hope, & love,
Sr. Desiré Anne-Marie Findlay

Friday, May 8, 2020

Ahmaud Arbery

I can't think about him without feeling sick to my stomach. I barely heard about his murder yesterday, but today he's all I can think about.

His death holds years of injustice, of unrelenting hatred, of dignity thrown to the ground and massacred.

Now I get a sense of what longing for the Messiah meant for the Jewish people; hoping and waiting for someone who would fix everything, take away the suffering imposed upon your people for generations. I get the disappointment now when Jesus hadn't shown up to end political evils and upturn unjust infrastructures.

I feel the weight of the phrase,"We had hoped..." as I think about the dejected disciples on their way to Emmaus. I can understand that heaviness as I realize every day I am hoping, but turn to find that hope tossed away by another senseless killing.

If the world won't change unless I change, then should I be placing the burden of hope upon myself? Is it I who should be ending political evils and upturning unjust infrastructures?

My mind falls upon a scene from an unassuming Netflix series called "The Letter for the King". Tiuri, a young knight in training, has an incredibly profound encounter with an odd monk. It is the monk's last paragraph which grabs my attention now, but the entire conversation and scene is worth noting:

Tiuri and his travel companion have taken refuge at a seemingly dark and sinister monastery. Late into the night, Tiuri realizes he's lost an item very important to him and goes out into the hall looking for it. The odd monk finds him instead and they make their way downstairs for a turning point in Tiuri's inward journey...

[Monk hands Tiuri a large sword.]
T: It's too heavy for me.
M: On the contrary, that heaviness, that weight, that's what we carry around in our hearts our whole lives.
[They lift their swords for a duel, but Tiuri says he can't and drops the sword.]
M: What's in there? What's in that heart of yours that dare not speak? You will have been told to ignore it. To pretend it's not there. But ignoring it is like choosing a lighter sword. And what comes from turning our back on the heaviness inside?
[Monk hands Tiuri a lighter sword. They duel and Tiuri quickly loses.]
M: It destroys us. You have to face it. You have to face the heaviness. Because the heaviness is what's keeping you from being who you really are.
[Tiuri picks up the heavy sword again.]
M: Embrace it. Look into your heart with clear eyes and move with it.
[They duel and Tiuri does much better.]
M: Let out the boy you are inside, the boy you've never known, the boy who's never dared step into the light. Face the heaviness that's stopping that boy and name it.
[They duel again. Tiuri continues to fight well and then names his heaviness as "loss".]
M: It's not the pain which ruins us, my child. It's the things we do to avoid the pain.
T: I fear it will break me.
M: Then break. Break. Let Spirit crack you open. Let yourself be forged in the crucible of your own agony, transformed into the most perfect instrument of destiny... If you can embrace the fullness of your pain, you can embrace the fullness of that power.

It's this final paragraph from the monk which comes to me today, offering a bit of consolation and encouragement. It's a reminder to me that hope crucified is not the end of the story, but a place from which true hope flows.

Ahmaud Arbery, today you are my hope crucified. You are the innocence I had hoped would live. Instead, you have been robbed of life after only 25 years on this earth and it has caused pain for so many. May we allow this tragedy to be a crucible which forges us and transforms us into the most perfect instruments of destiny. May embracing our pain lead us to embrace the fullness of our power. May this not be the end of Ahmaud Arbery's story.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

A Moment of Honesty

This post is for those of us struggling with quarantine and feeling guilty about it. If you’re like me, you’ve probably been vacillating between knowing how much quarantine has troubled you, but trying to shush yourself since there are other people out there with “real problems”. Well guess what, every problem is a real problem, so welcome, my troubled friend.

When it comes to my interior movement these days, there's not even a back and forth I can describe - no going between two different emotions like a high and a low. No, I'm just all over the place.

Some days I'm mad; other days I'm content and can see God at work even in the mess. And then other days I feel like an ungrateful first world brat because I'm constantly complaining about my own discomfort. Sometimes I even get to experience all of that in a single day. But every day I start over by reminding myself that it's okay to feel whatever I'm feeling and that minimizing my hurt isn't going to help anyone. In fact, it would only be detrimental to me and the people around me (or in front of me on a screen).

While I may not be working on the front lines accompanying the sick and dying, or losing loved ones from across the miles without a chance to say goodbye, there are losses and challenges in my own daily life that I must acknowledge, even as I work from home, virus-free and well-fed. My pain doesn't have to look like somebody else's pain to count, and neither does yours.

I first started to notice that I was feeling angry after spending two weeks in quarantine. I came back to my convent in Pittsburgh halfway through March after traveling to California for a few different events. As I left California, schools, restaurants and movie theaters slowly began to close their doors.

Upon arriving in Pittsburgh, I spent 14 days in quarantine because the sister I live with is immunocompromised. She stayed at another convent while I stayed at ours alone. At first I thought I would enjoy it and that I’d finally have a chance to catch up on all the sleep and downtime I could have ever dreamed of. Instead, I found myself staying awake until the sun came up on some nights and simply waiting for the days to end because every hour felt heavy and empty all at once.

I went from spending time with people constantly to having absolutely no human interaction except for the single day I went to the grocery store. Even as an introvert I felt myself drained of all energy. I was fed up with Zoom calls already and didn’t even want to respond to texts or phone calls anymore. I have never experienced clinical depression, but I’m pretty sure that was the closest I have ever come. And all it took was 14 days.

It was hard to understand why I felt so lethargic, but looking back on it, I realize I was grieving. I had just lost my life in the way I had known it for the 33 years I’ve been alive. Not only that, but going from constant interaction to zero interaction was like jumping into a water so cold it lunged at every cell in my body. If the coronavirus could attack the lungs of my heart, that’s what it felt like.

Not only did my calendar go empty - which was once so full I could barely understand how I actually made it to appointments without double-booking myself - but my days did as well. For 14 days I had absolutely no reason to get up in the morning. Since I am a religious sister, people might wonder, “Isn’t Jesus your reason for getting up every day?” Well yes, but for me the idea of Jesus being present “where two or three are gathered together in [his] name” is very much a reality (Mt. 18:20). I may be an introvert, but I love people because I find the Jesus I love among them.

My days were empty of activity, which meant they were empty of people, which in turn made me feel like they were empty of purpose. I was grateful for God’s invitation during this time to look at my days and how I spent them - not just in the past, but in the present. It brought to mind thoughts and questions around the idea of meaning and purpose. Having a full calendar and days overflowing with activity once told me I had a purpose. As all of that disappeared, how was I supposed to believe my life still had purpose? I knew it was a chance for transformation, and yet it was still very painful.

When it was time for the sister I live with to return home, my mixed emotions continued. I wanted company, but her return to our convent wasn’t going to change anything. It made me angry. Fortunately for me she is very patient and understanding because she was the only one around and thus became the object of my frustration.

Throughout Holy Week I continued to fume about all that was disappearing in my life - friend’s weddings, vocation events, gatherings in new and exciting places, a spiritual retreat in the desert, time with my family in New Mexico, outings of any kind - while at the same time feeling like I shouldn’t complain since other people had bigger problems. But when the resurrection of Easter began to uncurl the tightness in my chest, I could begin to see my own “problems” were also very real. Slowly, very slowly, I started to acknowledge the losses and let go. It was like watching new life take root after a forest fire even as the ash is still falling.

Contemplating the process of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly began to help me understand transformation on a deeper level. What first stood out to me was how the caterpillar becomes an absolute mess in the cocoon. Kirstin Vanlierde describes it well in a post on medium.com entitled, “A Little Story on Death and Resurrection”: In order to become a butterfly, the caterpillar has to fall apart completely, decompose down to its very essence, devoid of any shape or consciousness. It literally dies. There is nothing left of it. And from this ... essence, the butterfly starts to put itself together, from scratch.

I had no problem identifying with that. There was a darkness in this time that seemed to be both painful and healing. It was causing me to question everything, down to whether or not my life had any purpose anymore; but it was also helping me to value life in ways I never had.

Secondly, I once heard that sometimes caterpillars delay their process of becoming a chrysalis. For whatever reason, when the time comes they do not begin the process and can even put it off for up to a year. Do they know what’s coming? Do they know they will be completely undone? Maybe they sense a change in the air and, like most of us, do whatever they can to avoid it.

This time, though, none of us could avoid the change. We couldn’t even try to delay it. Here we are now, in a global cocoon, with our lives coming undone.

We have all lost something. Maybe it’s health, maybe a loved one or a friend, maybe a “right of passage” ceremony, like graduation or Baptism. So let yourself grieve. Your loss doesn’t have to be the same as someone else’s loss to be painful. You’re allowed to be angry, hurt, disappointed, scared, lonely, anxious, sad, or any other kind of emotion labeled as “negative”. Allow the arteries of your spirit to open up so that healing can begin. Maybe some days we will experience depression unlike anything we’ve ever felt; maybe some days we’ll feel a hope as real and grand as the sun itself. No matter what, every day is a day closer to healing.

Maybe we’ll never arrive at the life we once had, but we’ll arrive somewhere. The caterpillar doesn’t know what’s on the other side of its cocoon, and we don’t know what’s on the other side of ours - but if God’s patterns reveal themselves time and again in nature, then coming undone completely means eventually we’ll get to fly.

Sister Desiré Anne-Marie Findlay