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.  

Thursday, April 19, 2018

God's Not Grumpy


I've been immersed in Jesuit priest Gregory Boyle's books recently (Tattoos on the Heart and Barking to the Choir).  I'm so encouraged and enchanted by his sense of God's innate qualities - qualities affirmed in scripture, but often overlooked in our own imaginings of God.  All of this led me back to this brief post from August 2015.  Enjoy.

*   *   *   *

“What do you think heaven’s like?” my oldest son asked. 

My kids and I were slowly waking up, seated around the sticky kitchen island, absorbing summer's early morning humidity.  I cradled my second or third cup of coffee while they spilled milk and cereal and crunched on chocolate toast.  

In a moment of unexpected quiet, my oldest son posed his question.

Wrapped in a fog of sleepiness and still focused on my coffee, I said, “I’m not sure.  What do you think it’s like?”

Perched on a wooden stool, he pontificated for a while, and made sure to specify that his picture of heaven included the conspicuous absence of bickering.

There had been a lot of bickering that morning.  In fact, first thing that morning I scolded the boys for their non-stop verbal warfare. 

The 'absence of bickering' idea made its way into my sleepy brain, tickling my imagination.  Putting on a grumpy voice (not unlike the voice I used to reprimand the boys earlier that morning), I growled out an impression of God policing behavior in heaven.  “Hey, cut that out.  No fighting allowed in here,” I said. 

Distracted from the joy of his own ideas, my son paused and turned to me with a quizzical look on his face.  Eyebrows arched, head tipped to the side, quick as a whip, he objected to my impersonation.  

“God's not that grumpy,” he said.

His correction ushered in a moment of silence.  Then we both laughed, surprised by his nimble reply.  In four short words, my son defended his understanding of the heart of God; God's very nature. 

//

I am often grumpy.  

Especially in the early morning, when humidity is at 90% and little sweaty, sleepy people are squabbling all around me.  

But God is not.  

The fact that my son not only sees, but defends the difference, is a wonder to me and a source of great joy.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

My Daughter, Annie Dillard, and I



My twelve-year-old daughter says there are four eggs in the nest outside her bedroom window.  I believe her, because she's one sits and watches, keeping an eye on the world around her. 

//

On the night after the Parkland Florida shooting, my oldest two, my husband, and I sprawled around the wood stove talking about kids who struggle, kids who sometimes perpetrate unfathomable acts of violence. 

“There’s a boy in my class who seems really sad sometimes,” my daughter said.  “I ask him if he’s ok, I tell him I will listen if he wants to talk.  But he doesn’t want to.  I don’t know what else to do.”  She shrugged her shoulders, letting the weight of seeing and knowing another’s pain and isolation rise and fall. 

The mother in me wanted to pick up that weight, like a strongman lifting a car off a trapped child.  I wanted to lift the burden from her shoulders and carry it far away, toss it off a canyon cliff, never to be seen again.    

Instead, I said, “I’m glad you ask him.  Sometimes that’s all you can do.”  

//

During spring conferences, a teacher said she’d recently paired my daughter with a student who’s only integrated into mainstream classrooms for science.  They worked together for a single lab with his classroom aide keeping close watch.  The teacher, also observing, noticed how my daughter deliberately slowed her pace, waiting for the other student to process before moving on to the next step.  In other words, she treated him like a real partner. 

“Some kids just rush through and do all the work,” the teacher said.  “But she was so patient, she just let him work at his own pace.”  After they finished, the student’s aide told the teacher, “That girl is the kindest person I’ve ever seen.”

Tears sprang to my eyes when she said that and later, when I retold the story to my husband, he got chills up and down his arms.  They weren’t chills or tears of pride, but the kind that come when truth strikes close to the bone.    

//   

I recently started reading Annie Dillard’s collection of essays, Teaching a Stone to Talk and it’s filled parts of me I didn’t know were empty.  Dillard’s work makes me want to not only write better but live better.  She writes as one who watches and listens before asking gentle, curious questions of the world around her.  She reminds me of my daughter. 

I was only three sentences in to her first essay when this small fact stuck its foot out, causing my imagination to stumble and pause: 

“Sometimes [a weasel] lives in his den for two days without leaving.”

Now there’s something to write about, I thought.  Something for a poem maybe. 

Who knew weasels have a private life, hidden beneath the surface of the world?  The very idea dazzled me.  Here, I thought, is something to explore.  But, reading on, I realized Dillard knows the weasel in a way I never will, having both researched it and watched it in a pond near her house. 

I have no pond near my house.  I’ve never seen a weasel except maybe in a zoo.  I can write ideas about the weasel, but I can’t write directly about the weasel (not honestly, at least) because I don’t know the weasel.  Seated here by my office window, I suspect I’m a good deal removed from the nearest weasel-viewing-locale.  For now, I’ll leave the weasels to Annie. 

I’ll write instead about what I can see, about what I know.  Today, for instance, the gray hen is foraging in our yard and a pair of sparrows paused in the shrub outside passing something (a seed?) from beak to beak.  Dispassionate snow flurries are falling.  It’s a lovely snow, the kind you long for in December, but it’s April, and if I hear one more complaint about this late winter weather, I swear I’ll despair because I’m holding my breath for spring and complaining wastes air. 

Looking up and a little further out, I can see the awning outside my daughter’s window where an eager pair of house wrens built their nest weeks ago.  I can’t see the mother, but I know she’s there, sitting on those four eggs in the snow and cold because life depends on it.  I know she is there just as I know I am here, watching and listening, asking gentle, curious questions.  These children, my daughter and sons, they are my eggs, my weasels; they make me want to not only write better, but live better.