Friday, September 21, 2018

God & Grace in the Garden & Coop


"Hen Party"

I try to make it a habit to walk around our yard most days after work.  I circle the house, then head down to the garden where yellow and red Zinnias occupy one row and red-and-white striped ones form another. The heads of the sunflowers hang heavy, drooping and brown, and the yellow finches are happy to pilfer their drying seeds.  Our tomatoes grow nearby, dark and dense as a forest, with heavy fruit twice the size of my hand hanging like red water balloons on nearly every vine.

Our garden is a riot, an explosion of weedy chaos that cannot, in our current tropical conditions, be tamed. But, we try. We summon strength and courage to weed one bed, then another. Hidden, we find the small watermelons the grew from last year's seeds, the pale winter squash growing in inexplicable abundance.

This year, with our hens no longer free-ranging, we're freed the alarm of their endless infiltration of the garden gate. No more pecked-at tomatoes. No more chasing five, six harried hens, trying to shuttle them out through the narrow gate.

This year, the hens are confined to a large fenced yard attached to their coop and they've managed to peck the ground there bare of any sign of life. Noticing their sparse conditions this summer,  it dawned on me that our garden’s endless supply of weeds might be a welcome addition to their otherwise bleak landscape.

We started taking weeds to them by wheelbarrow and wagon-load, tossing the leggy green plants over the fence handfuls at a time.  The hens were elated.  They ran, pushing and shoving, to scour the windfall of succulent greens.  Our rooster, Joker, puffed out his chest, making several announcements to his girls, waiting until they set-in before taking his own. Within minutes, the stems were bare, stripped to frail, skeletal forms. 

What a grace this is, what a miracle: our chickens take our garden’s accidents and turn them into eggs.

There’s more, though.  Standing in the kitchen, on any given night, I’m frequently confronted with routine kitchen scraps (the peels, the cores, the wilted ends) as well as bowls of mystery food left too long in the refrigerator.  These too, the hens down enthusiastically, clucking and tutting.  When I feel weighted by the guilt of chili left too long in the back of the fridge, the knowledge that this too can feed to hens gives me solace.  These hens are teaching me grace again, reminding of the power of redemption, the truth that our mistakes are never the dead end we imagine them to be. 

Richard Rohr sums it up this way: God writes with crooked lines.  By which he means, God connects all the dots of our lives, the much-intended ones AND the ink blots that splatter accidentally on nearly every page.  God writes the story of our lives with a view so broad, so imaginative, even hens turning old tomatoes into eggs ought not to come as a surprise.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

This. Here. Now. (Again)



Last week, after a fifteen-plus year hiatus from the sport, I went running with my daughter. 

We laced up our running shoes and set off, down the wet, grassy slope of the field across the street, through a narrow hedge of what we hoped wasn’t poison ivy, and onto the trail.  She bobbed along beside me, like a frisky squirrel, impossibly light on her feet.  She commented on how slow we were going. She claimed she could walk at the pace at which I was "running."  I told her she could feel free to run ahead if she wanted.  I told her, “I am 41 years old.”

We went up the slight hill and down the other side and she reminded me to “run through the bottom” – to use the hill’s slope to fuel the steps ahead.  We moved out of the shade and into the sun and I started to think about walking. 

Walking, really, had been on my mind since before we began. 

Would I walk?  Would I not?  Was I capable of making the whole distance at a slow and steady jog?  Sure, I’m running now – in the shade, downhill – but what about the sunny patch along the road? the slow, steady incline near the house?

I had been thinking about running for a long time – for a year, really, if not more.  But before I could get started, I seemed to need to know how I would end.  Was I starting a lifelong habit?  Would I lose ten pounds or more?  Was I going to be a ‘Runner’? Or was this a one-time deal, a passing fad, maybe yoga or Pilates were more my kind of thing?

It seemed I didn’t think the effort was worth it if I couldn’t guarantee some intangible future result.  So, I didn’t run.  Until last week, when something in me had had enough and I decided to let go of the need to know and take it one step at a time.  

Trotting along the trail, I recognized my familiar tendency to race ahead, to absent myself from what is – a slow and steady jog – in favor of the fear and fantasy of what might be. 

So, I started practicing as we ran. 

Here. Now. This., I thought.

Each time I wondered if, when, I would walk, I repeated the phrase.  Each time I wondered how far I would get, I returned to where I was.  And while this might seem like an inspirational post about exercise and the will to overcome – I assure you, it is not. 

I don’t really like running at all.  I may keep at it, I might not.  But what I noticed (and what may be enough, for now, to keep me coming back) is the way even this small thing – twenty minutes on a trail with my daughter – offered an invitation to the spiritual practices of presence and return. 

On the final stretch of road, my daughter sprinted ahead, leaving me to climb the hill alone.  It wasn’t as hard as I thought it might be.

*  *  *

My most recent newsletter featured a reflection on the phrase "This. Here. Now."  You can read that essay hereDo you ever find yourself plagued by a need to know?  What practices do you use to stay in the present and move along one step at a time? I'd love to hear in the comments below.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

What I Wish I'd Said



“What’s with the bracelet?” he asked. 

The cuff in question, made of brightly colored fabric and secured with two snaps, circled my left wrist.  Across the top, the word, ‘joy’ was written on a piece of frayed ivory canvas.  I was making my rounds at physical therapy - moving from arm bike, to squats and leg lifts – when the young therapist posed his question. 

“I made it,” I said – an honest answer, but short of the full truth. 

“Oh,” he said, “do you make jewelry?”

The conversation moved on and did not circle back around, the moment was lost.  I was left mulling my reticent reply and wishing I’d been clearer.

//

Have you ever lost something and, when you found it again, you wanted to do everything you could to keep from losing it again?  That's how it is for me and joy.  So, I made a bracelet in all the brightest colors, the happy, vibrant ones, and wrote the word “joy” on it.  I wear it to remember to hold on to joy.    

//

I don’t know what that young man would have said had I unloaded my frightfully serious reasoning on him that day.  But, I wish I had, because it was the truth and sharing truth with others often helps solidify it in the deepest parts of ourselves.  

This summer, as I prepare to transition from working at home to working at a church again, I’ve been looking over these past seven years of life and taking an inventory of sorts.  What have I been given in this time that I want to carry with me for the work ahead?

One these gifts is joy - the reminder to cultivate and choose it, to recognize it not as an optional add-on to the spiritual life, but as a fruit of the spirit, an essential marker of the presence (or absence) of God in each of our lives.  To remind myself of this truth, I made a small painting to hang in my new office, a painting filled with gorgeous colors, patterns and textures and one simple word: joy.

   





Monday, June 18, 2018

Turn Toward the Light (Do Not Be Afraid)


How did the rose
ever open its heart
and give to this world 
all its beauty?

It felt the encouragement of light
against its being.

Otherwise,
we all remain 
too frightened. 

- Hafiz


The world needs us all; every heart open, fragrant, bright with the gift of pure being.  

May the light of Love rest upon you this day.  

May the light of your own beautiful soul be an encouragement to all who cross your path today.

*   *   *

Things have been quiet on the blog for some time now.  Be sure to sign up for my newsletter and stay tuned later this week for an update on all the new things happening behind the scenes here at This Contemplative Life.    


Thursday, May 31, 2018

Keep Showing Up



I found myself in a bit of a funk last night. After mowing the front lawn, I sneaked into my office to pray for awhile. It helped. And then I saw my daughter outside and decided to join her because the hot humid day had finally turned cool and breezy. We road our bikes in lazy circles on the driveway and I noticed, again, the red roses blooming like fireworks along the side of the little house. I realized the Queen Anne's Lace was in full bloom too. After I parked my bike, I ran in for a vase and scissors and Sophia and I cut the first bouquets of the season. I felt immeasurably better then, I felt returned to my home, my self.

I painted this little plaque last year, based on a note I had taped above my painting station, "Keep showing up." My kids asked what it meant, and I said, "It means keep trying, keep being willing to be where you are, to start again in whatever moment you find yourself in."

I think that's part of what happened last night. Thanks to prayer and a cool breeze, I stopped worrying about what comes next and showed up to what was right in front of me - a riot of flowers, a lovely daughter to share the task of cutting the season's first bouquets.

In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor says, “No one longs for what he or she already has, and yet the accumulated insight of those wise about the spiritual life suggests that the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it. The treasure we seek requires no lengthy expedition, no expensive equipment, no superior aptitude or special company. All we lack is the willingness to imagine that we already have everything we need. The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are.”

Today, friends, keep showing up, consent to be where you are, in whatever you are in. And, when you do, I hope you find flowers, or a friend, or even just a moment's peace and quiet that helps you move gently, hopefully, into the next moment and the moment after that.

Monday, May 21, 2018

What I Learned When I Was Dying

Edge of the Conodoguinet Creek, Still Waters Retreat, Carlisle, PA


“Don’t forget, you’re going to die.” – WeCroak.com

I had been keeping an eye on the spot for weeks.  I thought it was a bug bite.  I thought it would go away.  But it didn’t.  Finally, on the first free morning I had, the morning I was set to go on silent retreat, I googled my symptoms and found out I was dying.

Well, I’m not dying (I repeat: NOT DYING), but that morning, based on what I read online, death suddenly seemed like a plausible possibility.  Not only was my symptom a possible sign of something bad, it was a symptom of something very bad.  I called my Dr and made an appointment for the following day.  I called back again and said I’d be more than happy to come in that very day if they happened to have a cancellation. 

Then, with nothing more to do, I left for my scheduled retreat, for six hours of silence and solitude with the news of my own impending death tagging along, an unwelcome, nagging companion. 

//

My husband and I recently learned about an app called WeCroak which sends users a text, five times a day, with a simple reminder, “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.”  The text arrives at random intervals (like death) and keeps things simple, clear, and direct.  

My husband learned about it through a counselor, discussing humanity’s fear of death as a source of generalized anxiety.  I heard about it from my Spiritual Director after sharing about my silent retreat.  “These kinds of experiences can help us wake up,” she said.

//

One would think a silent retreat, with death as your companion, would be The. Worst.  But, it wasn’t.

After driving to the tiny house in the woods, I sat in the kitchenette drinking tea.  Surrounded by windows, I watched bees flitting from plant to plant.  Upstairs, later, I rocked in a cushioned chair, reading Richard Foster’s, “Freedom of Simplicity.”  When reading grew tiresome, I stared out another set of windows and watched witless carpenter bees droning in lazy, senseless circles.  I took a nap, half-wrapped in a downy quilt, while the sun shone down on me.  I woke to a stink bug landing too near my face. 

Don’t get me wrong, I was distracted.  I fought back tears from time to time and found it nearly impossible to focus on my original intentions for the day.  I spiraled into moments of worry and anxiety.  

I thought about my kids and what would happen to them if something happened to me.  I want to say my concerns were selfless, but they weren’t.  I mourned my loss of influence in their lives, the things I would not get to see.  I realized, I will not last the test of time.  Which is to say, I will die, and the world will go on without me.   There isn’t really a single thing I can invest in that will last; as Theresa of Avila said in her famous bookmark prayer, “All things are passing away.”

Except, that is, for love.

//

Later in the day, I ate my lunch sitting in an old Adirondack chair near a wide and lazy creek.  The surface of the water hardly seemed to move at all.  If I shifted my focus, I could see long fish swimming loops along the muddy floor.  Dandelions, with heads gone white like old lady’s hair, stood along the edge of the water, bearing witness, I thought, to its passage.

Those dandelions are, I’m sure, gone today.  But the creek remains. 

It seems to me, that love must be something like that stream – constant, slow, enduring, and we are like those fading flowers on the shore.  In which case, the only sane thing to do is cast ourselves, wholeheartedly, into love’s great stream, to become – with heart, soul, and mind – part of the love that never fails. 

//

This is what death told me last week, when I allowed it to draw near via a googled symptom and online self-diagnosis.  Maybe others might learn the same by answering death’s texts five times a day for months on end.  The apostle Paul, who had his own travels with death as a companion, tells us the same, “now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (I Cor 13:13)

Death’s message was clarifying and simple.  It put my world, which I thought had been tipped on its head, right-side-up again.  It brought my feet closer to solid ground, which is to say, it gave me level footing in the land of acceptance.  

I did not make peace with death over the course of six silent hours spent in the woods on a sunny Wednesday in early May.  I’m not that naive.  But I did catch a glimmer of a gift hiding in death’s hand, enough to make me understand what we lose living in a time and place where death is treated as an inconvenient truth, a reality best avoided at all costs.  

You can read more about the WeCroak App in this article in The Atlantic.  Let me know if you try it out! 

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Origami and God (Fold, Unfold, Refold Again)


Each of my boys has discovered origami sometime between their sixth and seventh year of life.  It always begins with fortune tellers and airplanes, then progresses to boats and paper hats.  Soon, every surface of the house is littered with folded scraps of white copy paper.  Eventually, familiar patterns lose their thrill and we head to the library searching for new patterns to master.  
  
Harder patterns, though, require adult assistance.  Inevitably, I’m called to assist a frustrated child in deciphering vague diagrams and tricky folds.  This, I do, kneeling on the floor by the wood stove with an anxious, eager child peering over my shoulder. 

“Mom!  I don’t understand what I’m supposed to do,” they cry.

“Ok, let me see,” I say.

They want me to be able to look at the picture once and tell them what to do.  But, I need to begin at the beginning, to feel the paper moving through its motions beneath my fingers.    

I follow the patterns step-by-step: fold, unfold, refold again.  Even though I know the desired outcome, the path to completion’s often far from direct.  Jumping ahead is not advisable, so I stay in the moment working slowly, one fold at a time.

Some patterns begin with several steps of folds and creases that are then, one by one, undone.  These folds are preparatory, lining the page with creases that serve as landmarks for the steps ahead.  It would be a tempting but misleading to mistake one of these preparatory folds for a final fold. 

Sometimes I think this may be how God works in our lives – not that our lives are paper, manipulated by God into an unforeseen shape – but every life is filled with folds, some relating directly to the final goal, others only serving as markers along the path.  So much suffering comes from mistaking one from the other – pegging our lives, our identity on something that will, shortly, be unfolded to make way for something else. 

The problem is, from my human perspective, I can’t readily tell the difference between final folds and preparatory folds.  Even the final outcome remains unclear – what are we working toward here, God? A jumping frog? A peaceful crane?

The truth is, I'm not sure God cares nearly as much as I do about the difference between unfolds and final folds, about final outcomes and destinations.  God may be something more like a child, thrilled with the feel of pliable paper, delighting in the joy of shared discovery.

Knowing this, maybe we can learn to move lightly and freely through life, turning and folding, shaped in each moment by what is, rooted in the humility of not knowing, and a deep trust in the goodness of the One in whose hands we rest.  We are being turned, crease by crease, into works of beauty and wonder beyond what we could ever imagine.  This is what redemption means, this folding and unfolding, moving forward, always, toward wholeness.