Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Honey Bees in Advent


Each bee senses that her one obligation is to give the smallest motion of her flight muscles to the collective work of keeping the queen and the colony’s honey stores warm.  The whole hive knows they survive only if they shiver together. 

Some of them in the shivering cluster will die of old age.  Had they hatched in the flowering season, their labor for the hive’s survival – harvesting nectar and pollen from as many as two thousand flowers a day – would have killed them in four weeks or less, their wings worn to nubbins.  But hatched on the cusp of winter, they may live six months.  They will know only the dark hive, the press of their sisters’ bodies.  They will never fly, never fall into a flower.  They give their lives to shivering together in the dark, the tiny repetitive gestures of each, added together, a music beyond our hearing, sustaining a future for the community.

- from “Honey Bee” in All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings by Gayle Boss

My kids buzzed around the dining room table covered with a crowd of mismatched candles.  Darkness deepened outside the window and the wood stove breathed its warm breath in the far corner as we read Gayle Boss’s description of how honey bees endure winter. 

The bees, huddled in the hive, ‘shiver’ their tiny flight muscles, located just above their wings, to create life-saving warmth. 

“One honey bee shivering her flight muscles does not make much heat.  But twenty thousand, huddled together, shivering, can keep the queen and the colony’s honey supply at their core a tropical ninety-two degrees Fahrenheit, even as blizzard winds, inches away, flail. . .”

Wow.  This was impressive, we all agreed.  But then, Boss went on to describe the bees, “hatched on the cusp of winter” who will, quite possibly, never see the outside of the hive.  Those bees that “give their lives shivering together in the dark.”

“What?!” we said.  “Can you even imagine?” we asked. 

Then we prayed and argued (as always) about who would get to blow out the candles.

//

This past week – between an ailing car, a dying washing machine, and some questionable medical results - we had our own little season of stress.  It felt like winter was here and, with it, darkness both deep and wide.  My husband and I wondered how to keep our hope, our faith, from freezing over while the ordinary blizzards of life beat against our little hive. 

Messaging with our Pastor, he mentioned the passages for Sunday’s sermon spanned five hundred years between Isaiah’s prediction of salvation and John the Baptist’s proclamation. “God delivers,” he wrote, “just as promised . . . five hundred years earlier . . .”   

//

This is what I thought of when we read about the winter bees – all those people, shivering together in darkness, keeping faith alive in the hope that someday hope would become reality.  Five hundred years of generations lighting candles, telling stories, waiting, watching for the moment when the world would tilt toward new rays of light and life.

I thought about my own faith, so quick to cool when the waiting is long, so short-sighted and dependent on knowing in the here and now.  What can I learn from those bees, made for spring breezes and blossoms?  Does the dream of a future they cannot even imagine and will never taste keep them alive?  And, just as important, who is shivering still, in the darkness now?  How can I partner with those still waiting, working, for light and life that has come and is still yet to come?

//

Our winter passed fairly quickly – a friend delivered a washing machine this Monday and I did up the waiting piles of laundry with a welcome sigh of relief.  John’s sister and father worked together to gift us with a new-to-us car, one much newer and nicer than any we’ve ever owned. 

Crisis averted, thanks be to God.

Still, I think about those bees, and the reply I sent my Pastor last week.  “I’ve been thinking,” I wrote, “that faith is something like the belief that everything will turn out better than you thought it could, but different than you expected, coupled with the acceptance that the thing you have been longing for, the thing you hoped for most, may not happen in your own lifetime."  

I imagine there were times (and are times still) when this description of faith would not sit well with me. As an intellectual prospect, it seems both valid (biblical) and also terribly unsettling.  But faith is rarely warmed by intellectual assent.  When I wrote those words to my Pastor, I knew them to be true, by the golden glow of something deep in my heart.  Like the bees, I know now this is my job, to give my life to keeping that golden center warm and soft, no matter what the weather may bring.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Mistaken Identity, Poetry and a Secret



Twenty years ago, Naomi Shihab Nye’s poetry collection, Red Suitcase, came across the check-in desk at the library where I worked.  Captivated by the cover, the title, I flipped through, checked the book out, and wrote down two poems I’ve carried in my head and heart ever since.  One was, Shoulders, which I comeback to time and time again; the other was Valentine for Ernest Man, in which Nye tells a secret.  

“Poems hide,” she says:

In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping.  They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up.  What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them. 

The poem goes on to tell the story of a man who gave his wife two skunks for Valentine’s day.  His wife is upset at and he is at a loss to understand her tears.  The poem continues, offering the reasoning behind his strange gift.    

“I thought they had such beautiful eyes.”
And he was serious.  He was a serious man
who lived in a serious way.  Nothing was ugly
just because the world said so.  He really
liked those skunks.  So, he re-invented them
as valentines and they became beautiful.
At least, to him.  And the poems that had been hiding
In the eyes of the skunks for centuries
crawled out and curled up at his feet.

//

I also want to tell you a secret, not that you asked, but here you are: Poets hide too.

//

After college, I attended what my professors told me was one of the best seminaries in the country.  I got good grades – great grades, in fact.  I even got an A in theology.  But, in our weekly precept gatherings, I had an often repeated, strange experience. 

Ten or so students sat in a circle.  Led by a sleepy doctoral student, we discussed the week’s readings.  Questions were asked, comments made, and time passed in a smooth flow of conversational give-and-take. 

I read the texts (mostly, I mean, skimming is, in my book, completely acceptable when it comes to several hundred pages of Calvin and Barth).  I commented too, I raised my hand, opened my mouth, and spoke.  Often, without fail, while I talked, the room turned oddly silent.  Students stared.  I felt I must be speaking a foreign language.  I became self-conscious and my comments withered on the vine.  After I finished speaking, the room held a weighted pause.  Then, a grunt, or someone’s shifting in their chair cleared the air and conversation resumed, often in another direction completely, as if I’d never spoke at all.

Maybe I’m over-dramatizing for effect? 

That could be true, but all I can say is, that’s how it felt to me.  

Back at our little apartment in the evening, navigating the slim hallway of our kitchen, I explained the experience to my husband.  “It’s like my words are lead balloons.”  Gesturing with my hands, I clarified, “I launch them up, out, and into the room.  They should float, like butterflies or leaves, but instead they land in the middle of the circle with a thud.  Then everyone looks around awkwardly before moving on.”

We laughed and let it go.

Fifteen years later, I repeated the story for a friend.  “I didn’t quite fit in,” I said. 

“Oh, my gosh, of course you didn’t fit in,” he said.  “You were a poet among mathematicians.”

A bell went off in my head, my heart, it rang all the way down to my shoes.  He was right.  I was speaking a different language. 

//

I’m sure I wasn’t the only poet at Princeton Theological Seminary, in fact I’ve met a handful in the years since graduating.  Thankfully, the experience wasn’t scaring since my grades helped counter-weight the sense of not fitting in; what I was left with was more of a sense of a question mark hovering over my head.  What I was experiencing – me, a serious woman, who lived in a serious way – was a case of mistaken identity. 

//

Some time ago, I fell in love with The Story of Ferdinand. The story of Ferdinand is a story of mistaken identity – because of his great size, and an unfortunately timed bee sting, everyone is convinced that Ferdinand is a prize fighter.  Ferdinand is carted off to the bull fight ring in Madrid, but his actions there give everyone – from the Benderilleros to the Picadors and Matador – pause.  Ferdinand, who has always loved sitting quietly, smelling the flowers, sits down in the middle of the bull fight ring, completely absorbed in smelling the flowers that have fallen from the lovely ladies’ hair.  The crowd is disappointed, the fighters are disappointed, and Ferdinand is taken back home where he sits quietly, smelling flowers, and “he is very happy.”

In this analogy, I suppose, seminary is the bull fighting ring and I led myself there and did my best to fight in the circle I was given, but, still, when I thought no one would hold it against me, I made handbound books with watercolor illustrations, I wrote creative nonfiction, I colored outside the lines.

I’ve grown less and less fond of labels over the years, because of the way they so often restrict and confine rather than opening and inviting.  But for some time now, I’ve been trying ‘poet’ on for size and, when I need to find permission to bring all of me to the task at hand, I slip the title “Preaching Poet” or “Artist” on for size. 

//

This week, as I launch my first little poetry book out into the clear, blue, winter air, I’m thinking of the man who gave his wife skunks for Valentines, the way he saw that “nothing was ugly, just because the world says so.”  I’m thinking of the courage it takes to be who you are, in a world where fighting is more valuable than smelling the flowers.  I’m thinking poets, like poems, hide and present themselves in strange guises and all it takes is the patience, the willingness, the nerve, to live in a way that lets us find them.

________________________________________________________________________________

Hot off the presses!  My poetry book is available now, just $9.99 on Amazon.  Stop by, check out the reviews, and order one or two for Christmas.  



Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Year of Failure


“I’m tempted to declare 2017, The Year of Failure.” 

This is what I messaged to a friend minutes after opening a long-awaited email informing me I was no longer in the running for a coveted job.  My emotions were high; melodrama rose with ease. Looking back over the year, I identified a series of significant failures that lined up month after month in a neat and tidy row: 

• the book proposal and draft I spent months writing and was rejected.

• the library job I thought would be a good long-term fit, but wasn’t.

• the chaplaincy job I spent two months applying to and interviewing for and didn’t get.

The longer and harder I looked, the more failures I found.  Each failure represented energy spent without any easily identifiable reward; each failure was followed by a significant period of disorientation.  Why not chalk it all up as a miserable, frustrating disappointment?

Slapping a label on the entire year offered a tempting satisfaction, and the word ‘failure’ simmered with an oddly appealing blend of self-pity and shame. 

I’m not accustomed to failure. 

Partly because I’m amazing (wink wink), but mostly because I avoid significant risk like the plague.  If you only ever attempt what you know you can accomplish, failure is rarely an issue.  But, then again, neither are surprising successes or the experience of being comforted and carried by those who love you anyway after a difficult fall from glory. 

My friend replied, “Oh, I’m sorry.  That is so hard.”

She didn’t push back.  Her response left space for me to move around a bit, and I quickly realized other names might apply to this year as well.  Like, The Year of Risk-Taking, for one.   Opening myself to the possibility that other labels might just as easily apply helped me identify my real struggle:  I wanted to understand what had happened and to know whether my energies had been misdirected.  If I could figure those things out, then maybe I could make 2018 The Year that I Finally Do Everything Right (or something like that, only with a little more finesse).

I wonder whether, in all of this, it might be better in the long run (although, perhaps more intensely uncomfortable) to just say, “I don’t know what happened or why things happened as they did, but I’m committed to continuing to show up, to ask the hard questions, to look and lean and leap.” 

Still, sometimes, I feel that label – Year of Failure – hovering like a shadow in the periphery of my vision.   I sense it most when I feel uncertain and insecure.  But, for the most part, I’m resisting pinning it to my lapel or scrawling it across the front of my now-almost-finished 2017 planner. 

Even now, as I’m writing, other possible labels continue to present themselves.  Like, The Year of Withholding Judgment or perhaps, best yet, The Year of Believing There is More Happening Than I Can See, by which I mean, of course, The Year of Faith.  

That has a better ring to it, don’t you think?

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Kingdom of Heaven is Like a Tree



What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it?  It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches. Luke 13:18-19  

A large, brown seed sat in our cupboard for a good month or more.  Sealed in a zip-loc bag, surrounded by moistened paper towels, it was my husband's experiment, the result of a moment of possibility. 

It seemed, at best, forgotten.  

Then one day, after an online search for instructions, he planted it shallow in a white ceramic pot.  He watered it and placed it on the windowsill. 

Something maternal in me must have kicked in then, because I watered it faithfully along with my violets and ivies.  I watered it too little.  I watered it too much.  The sun came and went and, still, it sat there just the same - half-buried and silent, like a stone sleeping in the barren brown dirt. 

I can't tell you how long it took - weeks? months?

I watered.  I watched.  I waited and forgot to wait.  Inside the seed, secret life stirred, hidden, invisible.

Then the seed split.  It cracked open, right down the middle, and out curled a small green shoot, bent but rising, like a head that had been bowed in prayer for such a long, dark time, but now lifted to take a look around.  

//

The kingdom of God is like this, Jesus said, and then later also he added, "the kingdom of God is within you."  

//

Maybe we too are like that seed, like trees planted and growing, seen and unseen, in the midst of a busy and barren world.  We are watered, too much at times, or not, and the roots grow first, hidden, pressing down blindly, like worms in the dirt and secret places of our lives. 

Then we too are cracked open, split right down the middle of our lives.  We are the shoot that rises, the seed splitting, the roots rooting down deep.  We are the ones drinking in light and water and growing, always growing, into trees of every shape, color and size.  

And the birds of the air - those lonely, wandering, homesick birds - make their nests in our branches.  

May it be so.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Discipline & Struggle


We go up to heaven and down to hell a dozen times a day - at least, I do. And the discipline of work provides an exercise bar, so that the wild, irrational motions of the soul become formal and creative. 
- May Sarton in Journal of a Solitude


Seated in the corner of my office, I close the internet window on my laptop and hunker down to write.  With just a half hour left before I leave to meet a friend for lunch, I ought to have enough time to squeeze in my goal of 500 words for the day. 

I need to write something for the week’s blog post and, hopefully, for my newsletter too.  Neither need to be very long.  The problem, though, as I begin, is that, well, I don’t know where to begin.  I don’t have a story to tell, not even the faintest glimmer of an idea to explore.  I had a couple of ideas flitting around last week, but failed to capture them and now one is stale, like bread left out overnight, and the other is shrouded in fog too dense to be explored in this limited amount of time.

Still, I close the internet, sit in my chair, and begin. . . . (pop over to author and editor, Andi Cumbo-Floyd's place to read the rest of this piece).  Leave me a message there, then take a few minutes to look around at all the lovely tools and supports for writers Andi has going on. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Love Big, Love Wide


My twin boys, now six, are still little enough to let me sneak a snuggle. 

So, I do, as often as I can. 

I tuck their sleep-warmed bodies close in the morning and press my aging cheek to their soft skinned faces.  I drink in the profile of their noses and eyelashes, still boyishly soft, perfection.  I ask for monkey-hugs after school and end the day with bedtime kisses on cheeks, hair and foreheads.

It was during one such snuggle session, with my heart full-to-bursting, I told Levi, “My love for you is so big.  It’s as big as this whole room!”

He turned in my embrace and eyed me with a look of serious appraisal.  “You mean, the whole house?” he asked.    

I paused, afraid my expansive expression of love might not measure up.  “Yes,” I said.

But, he caught my hesitation and asked further, “Is that what you meant?”

Found out, I replied, “Well, I meant this room.”

Quickly, he added, “And the whole galaxy?”

“Yes,” I said.

“That’s how it is for me too,” he concluded, then turned and settled back into my lap.  

I felt my heart expand, my love grew ten sizes larger, returning to a size somewhat closer to what it must have been when I too was a child of six, still willing to seek a snuggle. 

Children love on an epic scale, maybe this is why Christ tells us to turn and return again to a child-like heart.  Here's hoping your heart grows a little larger today, too.  

Friday, October 27, 2017

I (Still) Hate Skittles


(Re-posting this story, originally written when the twins had just turned four, because every year I dread the CANDY, CANDY, CANDY of Halloween and, every year, my kids' joy and excitement help lead me through.)

I hate Skittles. 

I do not want to, as the slogan suggests, "Taste the rainbow."

If a Skittle accidentally fell into my mouth, I would spit it out.  This is how I feel about most candy, except for Sour Patch Kids.

My twin boys, though, like every other four-year-old on earth, LOVE Skittles. 

And M&Ms.  

And Blow Pops. 

And all the other crack-in-a-wrapper kids get at Halloween. 

//

The candy-consumption-negotiations began bright and early the morning after a late night of Trick-or-Treating.  Isaiah came out of his room with his bag of candy slung over his shoulder, like a little Santa's sack.  He stumbled down the stairs, focused on navigating the precious bag, as though it was worth its weight in gold.  

Before I knew what had happened, he deftly negotiated the potential consumption of one piece of candy after lunch.  He then proceeded to remind me of our deal before breakfast, after breakfast, before preschool, after preschool, before lunch, etc.  

The candy of choice?  A full size bag of Skittles. 

He and his twin brother waited all morning for their agreed-upon candy.  This, for a four-year-old with candy on his mind, is like waiting a lifetime.     

Finally, a lifetime passed, and the candy was distributed in the few minutes we had to spare before leaving to watch their brother's school parade.  Isaiah tore into his bag in the blink of an eye and before I could get a handle on the situation, it was half-eaten, then spilled and picked-up, twice.  

Foreseeing the potential for a disastrous candy spill at the parade, I turned to get a zip-lock bag for both boys so I could pour their candy into separate preschooler-compatible packaging.  I sat Levi's candy on the counter, hoping to open it for him and avoid a repeat of Isaiah's spill-and-pick-up performance. 

I forgot, though, that a four-year-old tears into a candy-wrapper like a squirrel attacking a plastic feeder full of sunflower seeds.  Place a thin layer of plastic between a toddler and a handful of sugar and stand back – all sorts of destruction is sure to ensue.

During the brief moment my back was turned, I heard Levi’s bag of Skittles explode.  A rainbow of sugar shot all over the kitchen floor.  I spun around and discovered that he'd ripped open one whole side of his bag with one swift, semi-miraculous, yank.  Skittles rained down, and scattered (or would that be “skittled”?) under the island, across the rug, and behind the heavy iron radiator. 

This was a crisis of epic proportions.  Children hunt spilled candy like the women hunting her one lost coin in Luke's gospel; kids hunt lost candy with the kind of determination and passion that God’s hunts lost souls.

Levi immediately started crying while Isaiah quickly began grabbing and eating every one of his brother's Skittles he could find.   

This was less than twenty-four hours after Trick or Treat and I had already had it Up To Here with sweets.  I wanted to explode like that bag of Skittles.  I wanted to hunt down the person who thought it was a good idea to give little people bags of candy bigger than their faces.  I wanted to scream and stomp on the candy in a fit of rage.

But, I didn't.  

I dug deep inside myself and caught a glimpse, for a brief moment, of the rainbow shining right in front of me.  I saw how every moment has a rainbow and - everyone knows -  rainbows lead to hidden treasure.  Rather than breaking the moment further, I somehow saw and embraced the invitation to be the hero  - I reached for the pot of gold.  

I knelt down beside the crying boy and the thieving boy and began gathering candy.  With due diligence, most of the loss was recovered.  We put the rainbow in a new bag and I zipped it tight.  Then, we ran out the door together, two boys clutching baggies of brightness and one Mama carrying a rainbow in her heart.

//

By the way, we did miss one red Skittle.  This, I know, because the dog found it . . . and spat it out. 

Even the dog knows better.          

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

How I Have Seen Men Treat My Daughter

(Sophia, happy as a clam, in her Daddy's pick up truck.)

A heavyset, gray-haired man, short and jovial, honed in on my cautious, serious daughter the moment she arrived.  She was eight or nine at the time.  He was a volunteer at Vacation Bible School that week, she was just entering a room full of kids she didn't know in a church we don't attend and her face reflected the concentrated reserve of an introvert confronted with a room full of strangers. 
“Smile!” he commanded before welcoming her or offering his name.  Reluctantly, awkwardly, she obeyed, he was in charge, after all.
Standing nearby, I felt a strong desire to whack that man in the face.  Maybe not exactly, but mostly.  The mama-bear in me recognized, immediately, the inappropriateness of his command and, in it, I heard the echoes of all the men who've commanded me to smile over the years. 
I too was a quiet, serious girl.  I cannot tell you the number of times men, mostly in passing, reminded me to smile. 
“Smile!” they demanded, as they passed me in the mall, in the lunch line where I worked, or walking down the street with my friends.  "You're too serious," they would sometimes add, "you'd be prettier if you smiled." 

Sometimes it felt like a harmless flirtation, a backward compliment of sorts.  At least I had a chance at being pretty, if only I would be less, well, less me.  I didn't realize then that these comments and complaints had nothing to do with me.  Nothing.  I didn't understand they reflected masculine insecurity, the desire for me to be easier, but not, of course, too easy. 

Over time, I got the message that it wasn’t ok to be me.  To be a woman, young or old, who rests serene in her own quiet seriousness is to shirk cultural expectations of the bubbly, giggly girl who lights up the world around her, flashing her pearly whites.  In tending to my own internal fires, I was letting down the male egos in the room, those expansive egos so often in need of continual support.
//
About a month later, I took my daughter to the pediatrician. She was suffering from a baffling array of symptoms and we had no idea what was going on.  Was it allergies, a cold, a stomach bug?   
She sat alone on the high examining table wrapped in a paper gown, while one of our favorite pediatricians, a gentle, thoughtful man, tried to puzzle things out.  My daughter was inordinately worried about the possibility of needing a strep test.  She fears and dreads the test, gagging every time and occasionally vomiting on whoever administers it. 
Finally, reaching for the large q-tip in its white paper packaging, the doctor announced that he wanted to test for strep.  My daughter's eyes grew wide in fear and, seeing her anxiety, the pediatrician offered a few simple tricks to help endure the swab.  Then, he asked whether she wanted to sit on the exam table or in my lap. 
She climbed down from the paper-clad bench, hopped into my lap, and I wrapped my arms around her.  Pulling up a chair, the doctor leaned in with the swab, but my daughter held out her small hand and stopped him mid-motion with a clear and simple request.  

“Can you wait until I’m ready?” she asked.   
“Yes,” he said and sat back, waiting for her command.
She paused, gathering courage, then blurted a quick, “OK.”  She gagged a little, but then it was done, and while we waited for the results, I sat there marveling at this girl of mine.
I was amazed at her centeredness, the way she drew from her own deep well to tell the doctor to pause, to make the space necessary to do difficult things on her own terms and in her own time.  

Reflecting on the situation now, I can see how the pediatrician helped protect and reinforce my daughter's sense of strength and autonomy in a vulnerable situation.  He took her concerns seriously and then helped to allay them by offering concrete strategies for dealing with the awkward swab.  

He was not offended by her fear; not belittling or dismissive.  With his ego completely off the table, he didn't feel the need to chide her into compliance or, worse, to barge ahead with the swab (as I've seen other pediatricians do).  He made space for her to connect with her own resources - sitting in her mama's lap, setting her own timing - and, in the end, my daughter was empowered by the experience. 

This, I want to tell her, is how it works.  This, I want to remind myself, is how it should be.  This is how two people interact with grace and respect, how a healthy man doesn't ask you to weaken yourself to fortify his own ego, but rather lends his strength to create a safe space for you to be who you are - loud or quiet, smiling or not.        

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Road is Wide, The Rain is Falling


Cold rain turned his thin, white t-shirt translucent as he bent his body, like an umbrella, over the double stroller.  The newborn baby cried and he cradled it against his chest with one hand while rooting in a diaper bag with the other.  The girl, a big sister at three or four years old, sat quietly in the stroller - her brown eyes wide, her dark hair and pierced ears glinting in the early morning light.  

Hundreds of strangers had lined up throughout the morning, eager to bargain hunt at the annual thrift sale benefiting United Way.  A friend of mine, a veteran shopper of the sale, had arrived at the door by six thirty.  Among the first in line, she had staked out a coveted position as the best deals went very, very quickly. 

I rolled in a few minutes after seven, with a mug of coffee in hand, and took my place thirty to forty people behind my friend.  I waited behind a young Hispanic man with two children in a stroller and in front of an old-timer who'd brought a plastic crate to sit on.  The line stretched out, single-file, across the parking lot, growing steadily as we waited for the doors to open at eight.  

Time passed slowly.  The old-timer held my spot for me while I went to find a toilet.  The newborn in the stroller woke and cried and was jiggled back to sleep again.  Pleasantries were exchanged in that guarded but polite Central Pennsylvania way.  

The old-timer behind me carried on a long conversation with a woman two people ahead of me, bemoaning his no-good sons-in-law who couldn't keep a job, couldn't even change a tire.  The woman, in exchange, revealed she'd recently been laid off after twenty years on a job.  "Ain't nobody wants to hire you when you're my age," she said.  "Believe me, I know."  The general consensus between them seemed to be that young people weren't worth much these days.  The Hispanic man and I, both younger by far, exchanged uncomfortable glances.

By 7:30, the sky was growing darker, not lighter, and the forecast of possible rain turned certain.  I ran back to the truck and grabbed my rain coat when the first drops started and my friend, still stationed at the front of the line, brought me her extra umbrella.  

Scattered drops turned steady and an icy wind picked up.  About fifteen feet away, the building we were waiting to enter offered a small triangular overhang.  The old-timer was the first to take cover, leaving his plastic crate to hold his place in line.  The father followed soon after as the wind forced rain past the double stroller's shabby shades and the baby woke again, crying and hungry.  

He pushed the stroller the ten steps to the overhang and sidled it as close as he could against the wall.  The old-timer scooted over to make room in the tiny triangle of shelter.  The rest of us in line, some with rain coats and umbrellas, watched this father without a coat, trying to protect his children while also mixing a bottle of formula.  We were rooted in place, rubberneckers, observing one small family's drama unfold. 

//

I can't name the force that held us in line, that kept us from offering to help or heading, en masse, to wait under a large catering tent nearby.  Whatever it was - fear, longing, desire - the feeling was palpable, like a force-field keeping us all apart, causing us each to suffer the storm in isolation, single-file in the passing cold and rain.  This force, I believe, thought I can't put my finger on its exact shape or name, is one of, if not the signature evil of our times.  Under its sway, as Naomi Shihab Nye predicts in her poem, 'Shoulders,' "the road will only be wide, the rain will never stop falling."

Somehow, we must kindle the courage, the imagination, necessary to enact an alternative to our chosen isolation.  What will it take for us to break out, to break through, to one another?

//

It was the way he curved his body over the stroller, the rounded defenselessness of his back as he leaned, rooting in the diaper bag; it was the way he sheltered them that caused my feet to move, that broke me out of line.  My feet moved, of their own accord, and then I was there, behind him, my body blocking him from the wind, my friend's umbrella held high at an angle over the two children and their dad.  

He turned, slightly, at my approach, acknowledged me with a nod, and carried on preparing the bottle, then feeding his infant son.  We stood close, awkwardly close in the small space, and didn't speak a word.  I smiled at the solemnly shy little girl with her deep brown eyes that drank in the world.

The rain passed, the sun peaked out, and we moved back into line.  The old-timer caught my eye.  "That was a nice thing you did," he said, "real nice."

//

Somehow, we must kindle the courage, the imagination, necessary to enact an alternative to our chosen isolation.  What will it take for us to break out, to break through, to one another?

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Some Days, We Nap Together (What Tragedy Demands of Us)


Some days, after working in my office all morning and eating a quick lunch at my desk, my body grows heavy and slow and my thoughts turn to molasses.  With just an hour left before the first child arrives back home, before I leave to work an evening shift at the library, I close my laptop, grab my phone and head for my office door.  My dog, Coco, half-sleeping in her corner chair, lifts her head, then jumps down and follows me outside across the blacktop soaked with sunlight, up the back steps, and into the big house. 

Inside, I pause while we each get a drink of water – her at her metal bowl and me at the vintage water fountain near our kitchen door.  Then, I grab a blanket or beach towel – whichever is warm enough and near at hand – and head into the winter room where the wood stove sits heavy in the corner, squat and round, a cast iron Buddha.  Coco follows at my heels and watches patiently as I hunt one room, then another, in search of our sole throw pillow. 

Pillow in hand, I lay down in the same position, always.  Pressing the pillow into one end of our old, leather love seat, I lay down on my right side, curling my long legs to fit on the too-short sofa.  Coco watches with patience and focus as I spread the blanket or towel over myself, then stick my legs out straight off of the couch, offering a pathway to the pocket of empty space at the far end. 

I pat the leather with my hand, twice.  Coco pauses, very still, and looks me in the eye, double-checking her permission.  “Come on, Coco,” I say and up she jumps, then turns and settles in the corner.  I bend my legs again and tuck in around her, careful to keep from bumping her muzzle with my feet.  The warmth of her soft, sweet body adds to my own and we sleep, tucked together, her head resting on my ankles. 

Her presence, as I rest, is pure gift.  The gift of quiet, undemanding companionship; the gift of with-ness that cannot be measured save for the way it softens and steadies the human heart. 

She wakes, when I wake and shift.  Or, sometimes, too warm and close for comfort, she hops down before the nap gets under way.  Some days, if I'm lucky, our handsome black cat notices our napping nest and jumps down from his solitary leather chair and comes purring along into my arms.  On those days, the cat settles opposite the dog, in the space in front of my chest.  Together, we form a sort of yin-yang arrangement of fur and flesh, the cat in front of me, the dog behind.  

//

I experience a profound goodness during these naps, which may seem a small thing amidst all the world’s evils and sorrows, not to mention my own small entanglements.  But I am wondering whether tragedy really demands the trivializing of such moments of beauty, wonder, and grace – moments when the human soul stretches and softens, relaxed and at ease?

Perhaps tragedy and sorrow, worry and fear, require instead, that we linger and luxuriate in these moments.  Maybe Love itself invites us to spread them out wide for the world to see or to tuck them in somewhere safe, like a golden leaf in fall noticed, gathered, and pressed between the pages of a book where it can be rediscovered time and again in the long winter months ahead. 

I love these moments with the dog, the cat; they are precious to me and I cannot pass them off as something less than mercy and grace.  Evil is never defeat by casting what is precious aside.  Evil is defeated when we gently welcome, gather and share what is good and holy and true.  In this way light and life and love are born and borne and multiplied in our midst. 

The world is a heavy and troubled place.  It is also riddled through with mercy, grace and love.  In these days of naming darkness, let us remember also to gather and spread the Light we're given, casting it high and wide, like a million stars lighting up the night.



 Coco and I sharing a little pre-nap love. 

Where are you finding Mercy, Grace and Love these days??

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.