Monday, September 25, 2017

Turn, and Be Saved


Photo by Simon Hesthaven on Unsplash


Sometimes, all it takes
is the slight movement of your eye,
a tilt of your head, your heart, to admit
a new angle, to see the way out, the way through
that was always there, but just out of sight, like God is. 

This can happen in the smallest pauses, like the rest
between inhale and exhale, or the moment just before
the words you will always regret find their way out
of your mouth.  This is the salvation we’ve been waiting for,
the one thing that's always given, if only we would turn and
receive. 

- K. Chripczuk

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Because (Mysticism and Math)


Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

Because my husband and I reached a moment of clarity when his truck, again, needed extensive repairs we couldn't afford.  "Something needs to change,” we said, together, and the words set like concrete, solid and steady beneath our feet. 
  
Because, the job opening was posted online within a day or two of our decision.  

Because, it had been six months or more since I looked for any kind of job and this kind of job only appears once in a blue moon.  What are the chances we would reach this decision, that I would start looking for a job, the day after my dream job was posted?

Because, my references all said, "Yes, of course, we think you'd be great."  

Because, the timing is perfect, with the kids ready steady in a new school year. 

Because I want it to be so. 

Because, because. 

//

I ticked these signs off one by one in my Spiritual Director's office, laying them out like bread crumbs I've gathered amidst the wilderness of my life, crumbs I hope might form a trail.  

“I want these things to add up,” I said.  “I want them to mean I will get this job.  But I know, it’s one thing to know what is – to be aware – and a much more difficult thing to know what it means.”  

Here, she nodded, knowingly.  

“I want to be able to say these signs mean God is doing this," I continued, "but I know God too well by now to place God in that kind of box."  "I’m not sure where God is in this,” I concluded.

“It seems to me,” she said, “that you’re being invited into a more mystical way of being.  Invited to dwell, not in the meaning of things, but in what you know to be true in each moment.”

//

In high school, I always did my math homework first.  For the most part, for me, it was easy.  More importantly, though, it was solid, clear, concrete.  There was only one answer and when you found it and checked it, you were done. 

Writing homework, though, was another beast.  Writing an essay is so open-ended.  There are so many words to choose from, so many ways to shape a sentence, a paragraph, a thought.  There is no clear ending; there are many was to frame a correct answer, so many ways to sculpt ideas across a page.  I never finished my writing assignments until just before they were due.  

//

Mysticism is not math.  It is the homework I have saved for last.

//

I immediately recognized the truth in my Spiritual Director’s words and, inwardly, I sighed.  Giving up my clumsy attempts to discern the meaning of things felt like a loss – a loss of knowing, to be exact.  

What do we have if we can't add events of our lives up one after the other, if we cannot trace a simple path through the woods of where we are to where we think we want to be?   We are left only with the present in all of its fullness and fragility.  

I told my director this, how I value the easy math of knowing, nailing down, what God is or is not doing.  How letting it go feels like a loss.  But, I realized even as I spoke, that by letting go of what is not, we enter, more fully, into what is.  We are free to stop hoarding and trying to find our path via the breadcrumbs of our lives.  Free to enjoy each crumb as the much-needed manna it is.  

What do we have if we only live in the present?

We have nothing.  We have everything.

We have God.

    

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Thrift Store, With God (What I Gave Up & What God Holds)



God and I went to the thrift store last week. 

It’s was the first day my kids were back in school.  Although I often go thrifting with the aim of stocking my kids’ closets, I breezed right through the children’s section of the giant store with barely a glance.  The image of them each boarding the bus that morning in new shoes, shorts and sneakers was still fresh in my mind.  

The day before, I had been struck by an unexpected wave of resentment at the wealth of new clothes they had and their apparent lack of appreciation for it.  It wasn’t just the clothes I resented, though, it was the time, the sheer amount of resources, I sent their way this summer, particularly during the last grueling weeks of August.  You see, this summer, I gave up.

I fought hard, in the beginning, to make room for my writing and working life to continue.  Hard, like, wearing ear muffs in my office while my kids mimicked the rooster by my window and practiced playing the recorder outside my office door.  When working with them at home failed, I took them to a free day camp program the next town over, freeing up two precious hours, three mornings a week.  But it wasn’t enough.  The pressure to drop them off, drive home, and dive into writing with little to no transition proved unwieldy. 

By early August the impact of my evening and weekend work schedule at the library became clear.  In summers past, those were times I could steal away to my office write.  This summer, I traded those hours for a small but much-needed paycheck.

Then came August, with two birthdays (twins!), several days of single-parenting while my husband wrestled the engine in and out (and in and out again) of his rattle-trap pick-up truck, then several days more of single parenting while he traveled for work.  All of this, right around the time the day camp ended. 

I gave up.  I let go of even pretending to keep the semblance of a writing life together. 

At first it sucked and I was sad and mad and had All The Feels.  But then acceptance came along like a breath of fresh air and it felt so good to not be swimming upstream, to accept that there was neither time nor energy for more.  I lived in the reality of the last weeks of summer with four kids.

I cut hair. 

I bought shoes. 

I participated in a round-robin of back-to-school night events and organized a mounting pile of supply lists and schedules. 

I took them to the pool and praised every new trick they learned. 

I washed load after load of towels.  

It was what it was.  

But, after I loaded them onto their buses, when I went to post the traditional first day pictures online, I felt, again, the loss that accompanies ‘giving up.’  I scrolled through images of friends releasing new books into the world.  I read updates of others heading off to new jobs teaching in local schools.  I had nothing to post except for a few candid shots of my kids decked out in new gear, ready to face a new year.  “This is what I did this summer,” I wanted to write.  “This is what I’ve been working on.”

It seemed both sad, to me, and simply, remarkably, true.

In the post-bus quietude, I messaged a friend, “I’m trying to process what I lost/gave up this summer.”  Then, I shut up the house, pulled on my sunglasses, and headed to the thrift store with God. 

Like an awkward parent and teen tackling difficult subjects on a shared commute, God and I find it easier to talk at the thrift store.  Something about strolling the aisles of color-sorted clothes quiets and opens me, creating a place of listening and attention, which God and I both recognize as prayer.

That’s how God and I found ourselves sifting through hangers of winter coats and blazers, discussing ‘what I lost’ this summer.  It occurred to me, as I perused tan corduroy coats from the nineties and multi-colored ski jackets from the eighties, maybe I was being a bit melodramatic.  I paused, with my hand on the shoulder of a pea coat and considered the possibility.

Was I being melodramatic? 

Yes, perhaps I was. 

I turned to God, then, for an opinion. 

God said, without skipping a beat, “Yeah, you get that way sometimes.”

I stifled a snort of laughter.  Of course, God knows me.

With acknowledgement came acceptance.  I felt free to feel the loss – both real and exaggerated - and to trust that it too would pass.

God reminded me, then, of how it works between the two of us.  “All the things you give up, I hold,” God said.  “There is no part of who you are that ever has been or ever can be lost.”

How could I have forgotten that simple truth?  With it comes incredible freedom – freedom to hold on when the time and space are right; freedom, even, to fight for what I want.  But, freedom also for letting go when time and circumstances demand it.   

I felt lighter as I moved on to rows of skirts and blouses.  God wandered off into the aisles of handbags and shoes (God does that sometimes).  We said we’d meet up in the car on the way home, we find that’s a good place for talking, too.        

  

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Blank Walls, Empty Space (and An Announcement)


It began with open space. 

Maybe, that’s how all things begin.  All good things, that is. 

And, it began with need which, so often, provides fertile ground for creativity to take root. 

This is what I remembered as I sifted back through layers of memory and experience, this is the conclusion I reached when someone asked, “How did you begin painting?”

I never intended to paint, that was not the point.  But when we moved to this enormous, old farm house three years ago, I found myself with rooms full of empty wall space and nothing to hang.  Need (or was it desire?) knocked and I answered.  I splurged on one large print from Ikea and two empty frames which I filled with fabric in a color scheme I adored.  But our budget would not allow for more. 

I kept my eyes open, though, and found ornate and tacky old paintings abandoned along back woods roads and languishing in thrift store bins.  I bought acrylic paints in magenta, teal, and tangerine.  I, like generations of women before me, decided I would ‘make-do’ and I did.

In the process of making-do, though, I discovered that painting felt like prayer – calm, clear, and filled with listening.  Painting, also, felt like writing, and I listened as I painted and learned about myself as a writer, as a creative, as an artist. 

All of this, from blank walls, empty space.

//

What open spaces mark your life today?  

What invitation might these spaces hold?  

What opportunity, adventure, unanticipated discovery?

//

I never intended to paint. 

But now I know that words on wood, in color, is part of who I am.  Those empty walls called forth some part of me long buried like a seed, causing the artist in me to sprout and blossom.

Now I continue to watch and wait, like a gardener eyeing empty soil.  What open spaces are here, now and what abundance might be sleeping in the rich, dark emptiness?  

//


Good news, friends, I now have an Etsy shop where you can order prints of my original paintings.  Visit The Broody Hen Shop to see current offerings.  

Monday, July 17, 2017

Mail Worth Crossing the Road For . . .


Our mailbox sits across a busy state road from our house.  It's an old metal box equipped with a nifty yellow flag that pops up whenever the door is opened.  This way, we can tell at a glance, whether the mail is here yet.  

I never cross the road unless that flag is up - it's that reliable.  But sometimes, when the yellow flag beckons, I brave traffic, rain or snow only to discover a handful of junk mail - a flyer from a credit card company or a weekly bundle of local retailer flyers.  Those days, I feel disappointed, and like a little bit of a sucker.  I was looking forward to something good - or at least something useful, but instead I risked my life for a few pieces of paper that will go directly into the recycling bin.  

Maybe you know the feeling?

What if I could promise you one piece of mail each month that didn't disappoint?  I want to invite you to sign up for my newsletter, Quiet Lights, where you'll receive more of the same writing you've come to expect here on This Contemplative Life.  Quiet Lights is bi-monthly (during the school year) and has slowed to once a month over the summer.  

No spam, no junk mail, just a few good words straight from me to you.  Sound good?  You can sign up right here to get the latest post :



Now, if you'll excuse me, the yellow flag is up across the street and I've got my fingers crossed that it's something good today. 


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

A Hare, A Shovel, A Pale Blue Envelope

(photo via Unsplash: Gary Bendig)

I walked out the back door and circled around toward the front of the house one recent Saturday morning, looking for the shovel.  I suspected it had been left leaning against the porch after a recent gardening project.  A few weeks earlier, we had pulled out yet another dying shrub and planted a few annuals.  The annuals – mostly Zinnias and Sunflowers sown from seed – sprouted and grew about an inch tall, then disappeared.  We figured someone ate them, most likely a rabbit.  

I was hunting for the shovel so I could plant some things in another flower bed, this one beside the Little House.  

I walked down our paved driveway toward the road and noticed the yellow metal flag on our mailbox across the street was standing at full salute.  I saw no sign of the shovel along the porch and continued toward the road, aiming to fetch the now day-old mail.  Along the shoulder of the road, just in front of the mail box, sat a large, speckled hare.  I figured it would run off as I crossed the road. 

The rabbit stayed still, though, as I approached.  Beyond the mail box, the gravel and grass gives way to a giant field of feed corn, a tide of green that rises slowly each day.  I stopped, just beside the rabbit, my sandal-ed feet pausing in the small strip where grass and gravel collide.  The rabbit's eyes bulged.  They were enormous, not right at all for a hare its size, and its breath came in short heavy pants.  The fur along one side of its body was rumpled and I leaned down to look for injuries. 

I couldn’t see any blood, so I reached down with my right hand to feel the rabbit’s back.  Its speckled fur was coarse and dense.  I gently pushed the rabbit toward one side, then another, looking, again, for injuries.  I wondered at its bulging eyes, were they rimmed with blood?  

Observing the hare, with its unknown injuries, I felt a familiar weight of responsibility descend.  I considered picking it up and carrying it to the house.  It would likely die before long, but I hated to think of it struggling through its last hours on the side of the road with the sun beating down.  Also, there was our dog to consider, and the cat – I didn’t want them crossing the busy road to catch it.

I turned to the mailbox, pulled out our mail, and locked down the bright yellow flag.  I noted a pale blue envelope – real mail, not junk – wrapped in the day's advertisements and crossed the street, heading back to the house.  

I decided to get a towel to carry the rabbit.  Once it was safely inside, I'd ask my husband to take a look at it.    

Walking toward the house, I reflected on the foolishness of nursing a hare to health.  I, who routinely stands along the fence kvetching with our neighbors about the havoc rabbits wreak in gardens and flower beds.  I remembered the plush Angora rabbits I recently petted at my friend’s farm, their dense cashmere-like coats so different from this wild hare’s hide.  Mostly, I hoped the kids wouldn't catch wind of the rabbit before I could decide what to do with it.      

It was the first morning, in over a week, that all six of us were home together.  To celebrate, I had gone to the grocery store after work the night before to buy Buttermilk, intent on wowing us all with a new pancake recipe.  I envisioned a delicious, family breakfast, but the recipe was a flop and I gave up on the lumpy bowl of batter after producing a few half-cooked pancakes with a texture like silly-putty. 

My husband, John, was in the hot kitchen trying to salvage my mess.  I found him there and lured him outside to explain the rabbit situation.  Armed with a beach towel, and fully prepared for a rescue operation, I led him across the road.  The rabbit was still there, but had moved a little, turned toward the field of corn.  John guessed, by the way it moved, that its foot was broken.  He also commented on the bulging eyes.  

“Can rabbits get rabies?” he asked.  He didn’t want to touch it.  I mentioned I already had. 

I bent down, then, to look at its face and saw that its nose was bloodied and raw.  “Its face is bleeding,” I said. 

“I don’t think it’s going to make it,” he said. 

“I don’t think so either,” I said.  “But I don’t want to leave it here.”

“Should I throw it out into the corn field,” he asked, “or get something and just hit it so it dies?”

I hated the thought of whacking it over the head, but I hated the thought of its slow, confused, demise even more.  “Do you think you could break its neck?” I asked, thinking of the young rooster we recently dispatched.

“I’m just going to hit it,” he said.  “I’ll get a bag and the shovel.”

“I can’t find the shovel,” I said as we crossed the road together. 

It seemed we had come full circle. 

He found the shovel, I know not where, and headed across the street with it and a plastic bag for the body.  But he returned, soon, with the empty bag.  “It went off into the corn field,” he said.  “It was already pretty far out.”

//

Afterwards, I stood in the disastrously dirty kitchen, leaning against the counter, and opened the pale blue envelope.  It held a card with a small pile of cash tucked inside along with the signatures of three dear friends.  They had asked, a few weeks earlier, whether we would accept a little money to help us do something fun with the kids this summer.  

//

When I think of these two events - the injured hare and the pale blue envelope - coinciding, I am reminded of one of my favorite poems, 'Shoulders,' by Naomi Shihab Nye.  In her poem, Nye describes a man cautiously crossing a street in the rain.  The man carries his sleeping son.  As he walks, 

"His ear fulls up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy's dream 
deep inside him."

Nye concludes her poem with a prediction,

"We are not going to be able 
to live in this world
if we're not willing to do what he's doing
with one another.

The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling."

Nye's poem gets at the heart of what I was doing that Saturday, what my friends were doing through their inquiries and gift.  We were each crossing the street, pondering how another's need might intersect with the abundance of our own lives.  It's not like I heard the hum of the rabbit's dream deep inside me, but I did hear the hum of a deeper truth.  All of the many roads that divide us are nothing compared to the impulses of Love and Compassion that bind us all together.    

(Click here to read or listen to the full poem.)

Monday, June 26, 2017

It Was Good

Photo credit: Damien Taylor - 
Novelist Billy Coffey gave a great talk and reading Saturday evening.

This past weekend, three writers gathered two dozen more behind barn walls.  In a square room, wrapped in wood, floored in concrete, we sat around white plastic tables in folding chairs while a fresh breeze blew in through barn doors thrown open wide. 

We held space.

We held silence.

We honored words – ours and others’ and others’ still.

Then we held more silence, listened, and held space for words unspoken and words yet unheard. 

We pruned words – ours and others.  We trimmed back the dead, exposed new shoots, sank small sleeping seeds deep in darkness and watered them with attention and simple care.  We plotted out the landscape of our days, made plans to fence in empty spaces right in the middle of our back home, work-a-day, noisy, crowded lives.  We envisioned fertile ground, held apart, separate, where words and silence might wed, like water and sun, and bring forth bright blooms, arching vines, gnarled roots.     

Blue sky, rolling hills, and passing clouds wove mountain magic around us and we believed, again, in ourselves, in each other, and in the truth that “what we need is here.”  We found ourselves both hungry and fed, both giving and receiving; and it was good.  

//

Friends, I am just back from helping to lead the annual God's Whisper Writers' Retreat in Radiant, VA.  We've already set the date (June 22-24) for next year's retreat and will have the website up and running soon.  Meanwhile, you might want to nurture your writer's heart, by signing up for Andi's Discover Your Writing Self course which begins July 1st.