Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Running for the End Zone

I recently celebrated my birthday. Now that I’m past the fifty-yard line of life and heading to the end zone, I can no longer deny that I am aging. When I was in my twenties and thirties, I could ignore the subtle signs of the advancing clock, and in my forties, platitudes like “forty is the new thirty” provided a flimsy veil of denial that I was growing older. However, when you hit your fifties, your children are grown, you are now called grandma, and conversations with friends gravitate toward aging parents, physical ailments, and possible retirement dates, there is no denying the obvious: I am getting older.

Many of us take a passive approach to our advancing years, believing that how one ages is out of one’s control–that it’s something that just happens to you. Others go into warrior mode and fight the “dying of the light” with hair plugs, Botox, and sundry other remedies in an attempt to vanquish the inevitable. This birthday spurred me to examine how I wanted to age. I decided I didn’t want to take the “curl up and die” approach and surrender to Father Time, but I also decided that I didn’t want to take the “aging rock star” approach and look foolish trying to cling to my youth at all cost. So how to approach this process of growing older? The second chapter of Luke’s Gospel provides the prescription. This last line jumped out at me as this chapter concludes: And Jesus increased in wisdom, and age, and grace with God and men.

It may seem odd talking about growing older when considering the immortality of Jesus. Though human and divine at the same time, Jesus, nevertheless, did age in body as is evident from his progression from birth as an infant to his culmination as an adult man in his thirties. Therefore, Jesus knew what it was to grow older, and as in all things, He provides the example for all humanity. This verse from Luke is His prescriptive on aging, and it implies that it should be an active, deliberative process that includes three aspects.
The first aspect is to grow in wisdom. To age following Jesus’s example, we must actively pursue wisdom. What exactly is wisdom? Proverbs 9: 10 tells us that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Fear in this sense does not mean wariness of God, but of a healthy knowledge of His magnificence and our place and God’s place in His grand design. To acquire wisdom is not to gain knowledge but to be always persevering to know God and know ourselves in relation to Him.

The second aspect is to grow in age. While we know that Jesus advanced in years, many commentaries say that this phrase actually means to mature. Not only did Jesus grow in wisdom, but he flourished into our Savoir. What does it mean to mature? It means to become what God intended you to be, to embrace and fulfill your mission on earth. So, we are not only to gain knowledge of God and ourselves, but we are also to channel that wisdom into serving God by becoming exactly who He intended us to be.

Finally, we must grow in grace. Now, if Jesus is perfect, he could not have grown in grace as we usually think of it. Most biblical scholars take this passage to mean that Jesus performed greater and greater works for men and for God. Therefore, to follow in Jesus’s example, we must continue to acquire knowledge of God and ourselves and strive to fulfill our mission on earth. However, unlike Christ we are not perfected in grace. As such, we must rely on God to help us do greater and greater works in His name.

So, our golden years are designed not to be a passive time of acceptance of the elapsing years or an unreasonable attachment to bodily youth, but to enjoy a dynamic time of continued growth and development. We are to continue our run all the way to the end zone—perhaps with flagging physical strength and failing breath—but, nevertheless, with a vibrant spirit filled with wisdom, maturity, and grace.

This originally appeared on the Catholic Writers Guild.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

This originally appeared on the Catholic Writers Guild blog.

 When Picking up Your Pen Is Picking up Your Cross

By Janice Lane Palko

How do you regard your writing career? Perhaps you’re like me. I’ve been putting words on paper for more than 20 years, and I’ve always regarded my propensity to write as a being a blessing and as a calling of sorts. I wrote last month how God and, to a lesser extent, we humans can take something meant for harm and turn it into good. My writing has been a blessing wrought from misery.

I’m a natural-born worrier. Some families seem to pass on the proclivity to become addicted to alcohol, drugs, or gambling while others seem to be prone to divorce or commit suicide, but my family’s fatal foible is to fret. We are world-class worriers. After my third and last child was born, now nearly 25 years ago, I began to experience panic attacks. At first, I didn’t know what was happening to me, but as a worrier, I, of course, assumed it had to be something catastrophic like a brain tumor. After consulting my family doctor and a visit to a therapist, it became apparent that I was under too much stress—a lot of which I was putting upon myself. In addition to having three small children at the time and getting no sleep and experiencing several family health crises, I have a vivid imagination. As such, I realized through some introspection and prayer, that I was using my God-given imagination to terrorize myself. For instance, if I saw a carjacking on the news, I would cast myself as a victim and play out the scenario in detail in my mind of what it would be like to be taken captive and held by brutal criminals.

Through prayer, reprioritizing my things in my life, and discovering that I could terrorize people on the page through writing instead of myself, I found a happier, more peaceful, and more productive life. That’s why I’ve always viewed my writing career as a blessing in my life. It refocused my mind on more productive things.

During this Lent, however, I’ve come to another perspective–one that seems contradictory since I love writing so much. I’ve become aware that writing may also be my cross. Not to trivialize Jesus’s passion and death by comparing it to the life of a writer, but when you are a writer, life is not all sunshine and roses. There is suffering. How many of us could paper the walls with rejection slips? How many of us have had a piece you’ve sweated over fall flat? How many of us have looked at a paltry royalty check and wondered if it’s all worth it? How many of us have watched as books like Fifty Shades of Grey soar to the top of the bestseller’s list while our writing attempts to edify and inspire bump along the bottom of the Amazon charts? How many of us have put in a full day’s work or spent all day taking care of a home and children only to use what little “me time” there is to eke out some writing?

In writing this piece, I did some research on what it means for Catholics to “take up their cross.” It seems that passage of scripture is often difficult to define, but I like this thought on it that Saint Pope John Paul II gave during World Youth Day in 2001.

“As the cross can be reduced to being an ornament, ‘to carry the cross’ can become just a manner of speaking. In the teaching of Jesus, however, it does not imply the pre-eminence of mortification and denial. It does not refer primarily to the need to endure patiently the great and small tribulations of life, or, even less, to the exaltation of pain as a means of pleasing God. It is not suffering for its own sake that a Christian seeks, but love. When the cross is embraced, it becomes a sign of love and of total self-giving. To carry it behind Christ means to be united with him in offering the greatest proof of love.”

Like the proverbial double-edge sword, I’ve come to see my writing as both a blessing and a cross much as Jesus’s cross is both a curse as it spelled suffering and death and yet, at the same time, was the greatest sign of His love for us. Suffering and love are always intertwined.
Therefore, as we come to another Easter, I’m going to dwell less on the suffering endured as a writer and strive to be more like Jesus and take up my cross and offer everything I put on the page as a great proof of love.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Have You Ever Met a "Discourager?"

Here's My Latest Post from the Catholic Writer's Guild Blog

What Was Intended for Harm . . .

Several years ago, my family and I were seated in lawn chairs in a shopping center parking lot that overlooked Pittsburgh's skyline. As darkness descended, we gazed at the sky awaiting the city's Fourth of July fireworks when my soon-to-be son-in-law bolted from his chair and made a beeline to a store.

"Where's he going?" I asked my daughter, wondering why her fiancé suddenly had a need to go to the dollar store, which was about to close.

"Remember when he was in high school and he worked for that mean store owner? How that guy was always calling him an idiot and telling him that he would never amount to anything?" I nodded. "The guy in that dollar store is that mean owner. He's going to go tell him that he was wrong, that he'd graduated with an engineering degree, and that he was now working for defense contractor designing technology that would keep his miserable butt safe."

My son-in-law is a quiet, gentle, hard-working person, and since this was now eight years after he had spent a summer unpacking boxes at this man's dollar store, I knew that the store owner's unfair and demoralizing criticism of my son-in-law must have really lodged in his psyche.

Each year when my daughter was in grade school, the school participated in a reading competition sponsored by Pizza Hut. Students were required to read a certain number of books to get a free pan pizza. When she was in fourth grade, she was required to read ten books. One of my favorite books as a young girl was Louisa Mae Alcott's Little Women, and I couldn't wait for her to be able to read it and discover what a delight it was. A good reader, she asked her teacher if instead of reading ten smaller books, could she read Little Women.

Her teacher vehemently refused to even consider it. "No. You cannot read it. That book is too advanced for a fourth-grader. You'll never be able to read that large of a book by the deadline. Read Ramona or Babysitters Club books," said the teacher. My daughter relayed that conversation to me, and then set her jaw. "I'll show her," she said. "I'll read Little Women and the ten stupid Babysitters Club books!" And she did, much to her teacher's dismay.

I'm sure you've had an experience like those of my daughter and son-in-law sometime in your life. I have. More than twenty years ago, I began writing, and after having had several articles published (for pay!) and writing a column for a local newspaper, I was encouraged to join a writing organization. This statewide organization billed itself as a group that encouraged writers and worked on their behalf. I had to submit proof that I was a professional writer to be considered for membership. Imagine my surprise when I received this message from the person in charge of recruiting members: "I congratulate you on your moderate success and welcome you to the organization." Moderate success? I had no illusions that I was Nora Roberts or James Patterson, but who purports to encourage by diminishing? I shook my head and laughed. I'll fix you, I thought. I'll keep on writing.

We all know the value of encouragement. It warms the soul to dish it out, and it is even more palatable to consume. Humanity gravitates to the negative, and ironically, it's often the "discouragers" that make an even bigger impression on our hopes and dreams than the encouragers. When faced with this kind of slap in the face, you have two options: You can either let the discouragers crush you or you can hitch your pants higher and get to work disproving them. Sometimes, I think God allows these negative Nancy's into our lives because they are exceptionally powerful motivators.

How do you rise above your detractors whether in regard to your writing, your goals, or any other aspect of your life? Here are some things to keep in mind. First, know God. If God has put this dream on your heart or endowed you with a certain talent, remember, there is nothing that will stop His will. Only you can thwart it by using your own free will and resisting it. Second, know yourself. Had I been wobbly in my confidence of my dream or my abilities, I would have been devastated by that backhanded compliment from that writing organization. Deep down, I knew writing was for me, and there was nothing he or anyone could have said to discourage me from pursuing it.

One of the most wonderful aspects of God is his power to transform the negative into a positive. We see it in the story of Joseph in the Old Testament. He takes a boy sold into slavery and transforms him into a leader who will come to rescue his people. We see a young carpenter nailed to a cross transform that suffering into salvation. Through grace, He gives that power to us too.

In conclusion, if you are in God's will for you, whenever you come up against a discourager, remember, this: With God's help, you have the power to change what was intended for harm into something for good.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Lessons Learned from the Ancestry DNA Test & Geneaological Research

My latest post from the Catholic Writers Guild.

Who Do You Say That I Am?

By Janice Lane Palko

You’ve seen those Ancestry commercials about people who believe they are one race or nationality and then take a DNA test and find out they are not who they thought they were. My husband could be featured in one of those commercials.

This past Christmas, I bought him a DNA test because my parents had had their DNA tested as a gift for me and my siblings. Hence, I thought testing my husband would give our children a clearer picture of their genetic heritage.

My parents’ tests confirmed what my great-grandparents and grandparents had always told me—that I was predominantly Irish, with a splash of English, Welsh, and German. My hubby has always believed that he is half Italian and half Slovak. Imagine our surprise then when I opened the Ancestry email two days after Christmas and learned that he was 29 percent Italian, 25 percent Slovak, and, faith and begorrah, 19 percent Irish! Where did his green roots come from? We still have no idea.
My mother, whose maiden name is Hughes, registered 11 percent Irish and 50 percent Great Britain. Technically, my husband was more Irish than my Irish mother. The target of good-natured jokes from my family over the decades for not being Irish, my hubby now is one of the clan. He has taken great delight in his newly found heritage, lording it over my family, prompting him to don his “Who’s Your Paddy?” T-shirt reserved only for St. Patrick’s Day wear. The axis of our world has shifted a bit, and now I will have to throw away the “Honorary Irishman” button I gave him 36 years ago when we were first dating.

Accompanying the DNA test came a free month’s subscription to the Ancestry website, and I took full advantage of it. I discovered some things along the way. I learned that one paternal great-grandfather, James Lane, had a mother named Mary, a sister named Mary, two wives named Mary as well as a daughter named Mary, which made keeping all the Marys straight very difficult. I learned that a maternal great-great grandfather, who the family had been told had died when my great-grandmother was very young, most likely skipped town to take up with another woman in Colorado. I also learned that my English great-great grandmother who owned a bar, smoked a pipe, had a tattoo, and a pet parrot (I must have descended from sea captains.) and had 13 children was not widowed as had been reported by my late grandfather. She had divorced her husband as her marriage license to her second husband, my great-great-grandfather, stated because of “cruelty and barbaric abuse.” She went on to have a set of twins, one of whom was my great-grandmother. While Catholics dominated my heritage (hence the myriad Marys), I did find some Welsh Baptists and Cornish Methodists among the lot.
My Paternal Grandmother Agnes Moran Lane circa 1915

However, the most stunning discovery was that I had a fifth great-grandfather, Martin Short, (not to be confused with the comedian and actor), who came from Dublin in 1750 to the U.S. and fought at the battles of Bunker Hill and Yorktown and crossed the Delaware with General George Washington.
In addition, I learned some other, more important things. First, life matters. Although in this day and age, we treat it rather cavalierly, why, if life were not so important, would our ancestors have taken such pains to record births and deaths and chronicle who we have descended from?
Are you there, Martin Short?

Second, as writers, we provide a link to the past. I taught memoir writing for a number of years, and I always urge everyone to write their life story. What we put on paper today may one day offer clues, insights, or inspiration to someone yet to be born.

Third, you are dead for a very long time. My searches revealed a few relatives who died days after birth or as young children and one centenarian. However, no matter how long any of them lived, most have now been dead longer than they were alive, and with each passing day, they are even “deader.”
We will all eventually be dead longer than we have been alive. Therefore, plan accordingly. Make the most of your time on stage. Dream big, write beautifully, love with passion, leave a legacy. And all the while, prepare for your eternity. What you do now will determine where you will be later.

Finally, whether you think you are one nationality or ethnicity and you find out that you are not, or whether you find heroes or scoundrels or just common housekeepers, coal miners, railroad laborers, or shopkeepers in your background or not, it really doesn’t matter. Jesus posed this question of his disciples: Who do you say that I am? We should also ponder the converse. Who does He say that we are? What is our real identity? What He tells us is that we are His fallen creation, who He reclaimed for Himself on the cross so that we could become His beloved children and live with Him in eternity.

While it is interesting to know where you’ve come from, it’s more important to know where you’re going. That supersedes any knowledge of our earthly identity. Cling to your heavenly heritage because it’s the only one that truly lasts.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Here's January's Post for the CWG Blog

Pick up the Orange

By Janice Lane Palko

Some people receive profound promptings from the Holy Spirit. Me? I get messages like “pick up the orange.”

A few weeks ago, I walked into my local grocery store and saw a woman select some oranges and put them in a plastic bag. As she walked away out of the corner of my eye, I saw an orange fall from the display and roll across the floor.

You should pick up the orange, said that still small voice.

Instantly, I began rationalizing. I didn’t dislodge the orange. Why should I pick it up? They have stock boys to do that. I’ll look stupid, like I have OCD or something, if I pick it up and put it back where it belongs. Let somebody else do it.

Then my better nature joined the debate. Will it kill you to pick up an orange? Geez, Mother Teresa picked up dying people from the streets, and you’re freaking out over an orange. How shallow are you? Who cares what people think? Someone may trip over it. You will be doing a good deed, no matter how insignificant.

So, I pushed my grocery cart over, picked up the orange, and put it back in the display. But then something else happened.

As I was about to press on with my grocery shopping, I caught a glimpse of a woman to my side bend and pick up another orange, one that I hadn’t even noticed had escaped with the other orange, and replace it in the display.

I was astounded. This woman was following my example.

That little interlude set me to thinking about life, and for those of us who write, about what our toils to turn a phrase may mean in the big scheme of things.

Several months ago, fellow CWG member Cathy Gilmore posted an article from the Catholic News Agency titled The Catholic Church Desperately Needs Artists by Mary Rezac. It detailed how the world so sorely needs creative people who can bring beauty and truth to the culture.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been writing for more than twenty years, and the monetary return on my artistic endeavors has yet to land me a summer home at the beach, a six-figure deal, or a stint on Oprah.

I attend a weekly Bible study, and shortly after the orange incident, our leader asked us to share our all-time favorite inspirational books. One woman recommended He and I by Gabrielle Bossis, a French, Catholic woman who lived from 1874-1950. He and I chronicles the interior conversation she and God shared. When she was putting these conversations on paper, Bossis didn’t know that after her death, they would be published, translated into many languages, and cherished by so many readers.

At times, it may be frustrating when we think of how much time and effort we put into our literary endeavors compared to the remuneration we receive in turn. However, I don’t, and I’m sure many of you don’t, write solely for financial gain. Then, take heart, fellow creatives. Though we may never know the extent of our influence, like Bossis, our work may do good long after we are gone.
I don’t know if God intends for me to be a best-selling author or not. But what I do know is that I’ll be fine with whatever magnitude of success I achieve. I’ll continue to write and strive to bring beauty and truth to the world through my work with the hope of glorifying God.

I may be only a stepping stone for someone who comes after me, a toehold for another writer on their climb to achieving loftier success in reviving what has been a hallmark of the Catholic Church throughout its existence: excellence in artistic expression for the glory of God.
Therefore, as this new year begins, I’m going to pick up that orange and keep on writing. I urge you to do the same. You never know who is watching us or reading works or being inspired by our example. We don’t know who may decide to follow us, who may bend down to pick up that orange we didn’t even realize had also rolled away.