Wednesday, December 07, 2016

To lie fallow

Fallow field in winter. Mark Pouley/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Around this time every year, when daylight drips away and cold creeps in, when the heft of previous months have worn my shoulders sore, I find myself wanting to lie fallow. Plowed but unsown. Arable but uncultivated. Remembered but ignored.

Because by this time every year, I have scheduled a thousand appointments, completed a million tasks, and dashed about in a billion circles, but I have scarcely moved an inch on whatever I said I would prioritize at year's start. So I vow to begin again. To strip away non-essential distractions. To allow my brain, body, and mind the rest of a tired, overworked field that has no nutrients left to give.

Yet shortly after this time every year, I have an aggravating habit of fencing off a field, then buying the neighboring farm. "SPACE!" my doer brain shouts, and before my better judgment catches up to it, my brain has started twirling in Sound of Music-like circles around the fresh new territory, convinced that this time, this year, the results will be different.

And every year, my brain is wrong -- this year in particular, because I mastered, moved, married, and mourned ... not the lightest of lifts individually, and when combined, utterly exhausting.

The cumulative result? I am tired of doing. I am tired of giving. Which is terrible timing, really, given the direction in which our world is currently headed. But if the nutrients aren't there, how can I hope to share them? How can I keep sticking seeds in spent soil and watering weak sprouts, begging them to grow into something bigger than what I've put into them?

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg says, "Our senses by themselves are dumb. They take in experience, but they need the richness of sifting for a while through our consciousness and through our whole bodies." So there is the real question: Am I willing to trust the future potential yield of a rejuvenated mind and heart, or will I instead let fear -- fear of failure, fear of inadequacy, fear of not growing anything at all -- drive my output? True, I'm not guaranteed results from a fallow period. But I will almost certainly fail if I don't rest the ground where I plant.


Prayer #307: Leave Me Alone

Leave me alone, God. Let me be. I am dormant, I am dead, I am no longer home and awaiting your call. I'd say I moved on to greener pastures, but let's be honest -- green is the last thing I feel like being right now.

I want to be uncropped. Unplucked, unpicked, unharvested. Left beyond the borders of your consciousness so that my own consciousness can let earthworms frolic through it, uninhibited and uninterrupted.

I want to be un. Just un.

Sow later, God. Please. I promise you bounty if you leave me unbound.

Amen.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The urgency of compassion

The hope beyond. Carey Rose O'Connell/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

This is not a political post. It is a human one.

This is not a call for leaders to claim responsibility, for those with opposing viewpoints to accept blame, or for half of America to pick up arms and fight. Instead, I'm urging the first step. I'm urging compassion.

What this election revealed to me was a nonpartisan fear of "the other." We (note the first person plural) have channeled our fear and misunderstanding into denigrating, labeling, stereotyping, judging, and avoiding. These behaviors are not limited by geography or ideology. Except for the very saintly among us -- and believe me, sisters and brothers, I am not one of them -- no one is exempt.

In the poem "A Community of the Spirit," Rumi writes, "Close both eyes to see with the other eye." What this election revealed to me on a personal level is that I am following only the first part of the instruction. I never opened the other eye, never released the air-lock of my echo chamber, and as a result thought the world was with me. So now as I look back through a rotating haze of despair, anger, and hope, I see that I didn't and don't know how to open that eye -- and even if I did, it's so crusted over with sleep gunk that I'm going to have to take a pick axe to it first.

Once I pry it open, however, and train it on the people and perspectives I cannot fathom, I have a specific challenge at hand. My challenge is to see the person before me first as a human being, with all the dignity, complexity, and frailty that entails. Then I must recognize that same dignity, complexity, and frailty in myself. Then I must accept that we each hold values, beliefs, convictions, and perspectives that might overlap, might not, and regardless will likely be prioritized and weighted differently. And through it all, I must approach it to the best of my ability with love. I must be kind.

Here's where the wheels were coming off for me this week, especially as my echo chamber was hurtling through waves of outrage and disbelief. How in the world can I be kind? What purpose does it serve? Does seeking understanding equal condoning? It wasn't until I read this essay on Brain Pickings, titled "Carl Sagan on Moving Beyond Us vs. Them, Bridging Conviction with Compassion, and Meeting Ignorance with Kindness," that some critical distinctions clicked:

[K]indness, Sagan cautions, doesn’t mean assent — there are instances, like when we are faced with bigotry and hate speech, in which we absolutely must confront and critique these harmful beliefs, for "every silent assent will encourage [the person] next time, and every vigorous dissent will cause him next time to think twice."

-and-

The greatest detriment to reason, Sagan argues, is that we let our reasonable and righteous convictions slip into self-righteousness, that deadly force of polarization.

-and-

Sagan’s central point is that we humans — all of us — are greatly perturbed by fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, and in seeking to becalm ourselves, we sometimes anchor ourselves to irrational and ignorant ideologies that offer certitude and stability, however illusory. In understanding those who succumb to such false refuges, Sagan calls for "compassion for kindred spirits in a common quest." Echoing 21-year-old Hillary Rodham’s precocious assertion that "we are all of us exploring a world that none of us understand," he argues that the dangerous beliefs of ignorance arise from "the feeling of powerlessness in a complex, troublesome and unpredictable world."


It's not unlike preparing for travel abroad to a new country. You read up on the basics first -- common phrases, transportation options, recommended lodging -- before you dive into the place's more intricate nuances, the ones not immediately apparent to the outsider. In travel, these layers of discovery can be pleasurable. You're exposed to new sights, sounds, people, ideas, and you learn more about yourself too, your own strengths, weaknesses, and abilities. But such discovery can also be terrifying. You are pushed outside your comfort zone, confronted with the limits of your understanding, and asked to justify what you believe to be true. The potential for growth in these moments is profound -- and so is the capacity for fear.

Here, I find it helpful to look back on Sagan's point about slipping into self-righteousness, "the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, you’re beyond redemption. This is unconstructive."

Compassion is what takes a chainsaw to the wall and cuts out a door for us. Consider the words of Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, and Douglas Morrison in "Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life":

Here we see what compassion means. It is not a bending toward the under-privileged from a privileged position; it is not a reaching out from on high to those who are less fortunate below; it is not a gesture of sympathy or pity for those who fail to make it on the upward pull. On the contrary, compassion means going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there.

So in light of the angry discourse this week, the question for me becomes: Am I willing to seek out the most vulnerable and afraid among us so that I may better love them, knowing that those who are vulnerable and afraid span races, creeds, sexuality/gender, socioeconomic status, party lines, and voting choices? And once I drum up the courage to be willing, where do I begin the conversation?

My mandate, I think, is not to talk but to listen. Then to hear. Then to ponder. Then to act. Otherwise I am barreling into a pitch-black room with a blindfold on, swinging wildly. Now is not the time for shadow boxing, not when there are many real dangers present in the world. Now is the time to listen with intention and fight for love.

Recommended Digesting


Before you move on to my latest prayer below, check out some other articles, videos, and art that provoked my compassion contemplation:

White Christians Who Voted For Donald Trump: Fix This. Now. -- by John Pavlovitz, "Stuff That Needs To Be Said"

Evil -- by Langston Hughes

Kid President on How to Disagree Respectfully -- by Soul Pancake

I Am Afraid of Nearly Everything -- via Unitarian Universalist Association

The Danger of a Single Story -- by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie



Prayer #306: Instructions for Escaping the Cave

  1. Feel around in the dark.
  2. Find the stick of dynamite.
  3. Find the match.
  4. Find the spot on the cave wall that seems a shade less black than the false night surrounding you.
  5. Strike the match.
  6. Light the fuse.
  7. Place the dynamite near the hopeful spot.
  8. Don't retreat.
  9. Don't close your eyes.
  10. Don't cover your ears.
  11. Watch the stick explode.
  12. Feel the ground shudder.
  13. Absorb the shock of falling rocks.
  14. Note the jagged hole created.
  15. Crawl through.
  16. Bring your scrapes and bruises with you.
  17. Listen to the birds you could not hear before.
  18. Remember that they, and you, are alive.
  19. Rejoice.
Amen.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Fanfare for the common woman

Photo by Rubén Darío Bedoya Cortés/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Stir, my sisters.

Behind the chattering voice in your mind that cries "keep going!" is a quieter, steadier exhortation: "Stay in place." Go neither left nor right, up nor down, just spread your arms and spin where your feet already stand so you can fix your eyes above and see what shape the sky takes.

We need not carry duty the way our grandmothers did, with obligation mounted on their backs in such a way that the weight of should and must petrified and made them bow to forces they did not control. Stir instead as the not-yet-born daughter does -- fluid, untrained, jubilant to discover she has limbs.

Because here's the unspoken truth, sisters: We do not have any more control than the hump-bent grandmother or the womb-trapped infant. All we have is the choice to say no. No to advances unwanted. No to demands unwarranted. No to expectations unquestioned that of course we will "choose to have it all" and yet somehow "bear it equally."

Beware this faulty equation, sisters. No one can have it all; it's a false prophecy peddled by the unobservant.

Let us then become the observers. Let us trace our wrinkles, wipe our tears, spot our wavering, grab our truth. Let us be our own seers, with presence as the cup and compassion as the leaves, swirling to reveal what we have sometimes been too afraid to say.

But why wait for the oracle? Sisters, reveal yourself. I see what you present, but I want to know the sister at your core, the woman -- no, the person -- you are when choices rest and questions pause and the nightstand lamp switches off.

Who are you in the safest dark?

Who are you at the first peek of dawn?

Stir then, and rise.


Prayer #305: Stir the Pot


To the God who gave us half the sky --

The world has always needed both lightning and rain. Help us agitate and stimulate, provoke and evoke, rouse and raise, so that we awake in ourselves all You intend us to be.

Amen.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Accept the sandwich

Photo by buzzymelibee/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

“Do you want a pork sandwich?”

I paused in my frantic packing and last-minute to-doing. My cross-country flight was in two hours. The drive to the airport would take one. By my standards we were late, and the lateness was all I could focus on, yet here was my husband asking me if I wanted a roast pork-and-peppers sandwich for the trip.

“I can make one for you right now," he said. "It’s no trouble.”

“No, don’t worry about it, I’ll do it myself in a few minutes.”

He looked at me standing in the hallway, caught between rooms and tasks, and blinked. Without saying more, he went downstairs. Relieved to be left alone to it, I resumed my rush.

Ten minutes later I barreled down the steps—“Remember to bring the CSA bag with you on Wednesday! Would you mind changing the sheets while I'm gone? I still have to pick up the wedding cards...”—and ran into the kitchen. There he was with car keys in one hand and a beautiful bagged homemade sandwich ready to go, along with two granola bars and an apple.

I exhaled. Said thank you. Put the food in my carry-on. Enjoyed it on the flight. And thought with each chew how different life is when you don’t have to do it all yourself.

The path to sandwich acceptance has been winding for me. Part of it has to do with ceding control (an ongoing lesson for me in marriage and in life), but a bigger part concerns allowing my partner to serve me. What I perceive as extra work is for him an act of service, done out of love, care, and the much-appreciated desire to bring me joy and comfort. (Not to mention forestalling my formidable and legendary “hanger.”) His gesture has nothing to do with the sandwich and everything to do with partnership.

We have a lifetime to perfect offering and accepting the sandwich. May the journey always be so delicious.


Prayer#304: Love is Not a Condiment

Love is not a condiment. It is not separate or extra or packetable or pocketable. It is not added later at one’s own discretion. It is not left on the table to grow stale or sticky. It does not expire, and it cannot be sold.

Love, rather, is the main course. It’s baked in, inseparable from the meal. Your server brings it to you sometimes with intention, other times by accident, but it always arrives nonetheless. At your favorite places, love is “the usual”—no order necessary.

Love is what sustains you, long after you’ve finished.

Amen.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Nothing is at hand

Photo by romanlily/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Tonight I sliced not one, but two fingers with our new kitchen knife. Serves me right; I was using the wrong blade for the task at hand -- a long vegetable slicer to chop basil -- and the knife insisted on slipping gently to the left twice in a row, as if to call attention to my rookie error with a couple strikes.

As such, the cuts are not deep. They drew no blood, just nicked my nails and created two tiny, jagged edges that I did not have time to file before I left (already late) for Writing Club, so now when I rub my fingers absentmindedly at the keyboard, I am reminded of my missteps.

Such is my life these days, a brisk march -- or should I say aimless ramble? -- of inefficiency that finds my muscle memory out of date, my judgment delayed, and my mental to-do lists under constant threat of scattering. I no longer feel like the reliable and punctual person I have always prided myself on being, and to tell the truth, it's making me anxious.

I could cut myself some slack, I suppose. In the last six weeks, I moved my house, moved my desk, threw a wedding, began married life, and started preparing for my first shared international trip with my spouse. But I don't cut myself much slack. I'm Type A, a top producer. I can't let incidentals like Metro track work and stifling heat waves and fruit fly upticks stand in my way. I am a doer, dammit, and doers DO, in time and on time.

One layer of what's bothering me boils down to logistics. I've had to replan all my public transit routes, for example, which in turns affects my once-precise, now-unpredictable time estimates. My internal meal-planning calculator has not yet readjusted for another mouth who may or may not remember to bring his lunch. And morning wakeup calls and bedtime rituals have taken on a "come what may" quality, in that as long as they happen and we don't miss important meetings, we consider them a success.

Ah, there's that "we" -- the indicator of the deeper layer that's really at work in my current unsettled state. At the heart of it, I have been thrown off course by the simple fact of having another person in my daily life. Up until six weeks ago, he was a very pleasant and deftly managed visitor within my carefully calibrated routine; now he has become a still-pleasant but variable constant, one with different alarms and different hours and different habits and different, well, different everything. (Something I'm sure he is also thinking about me.)

What I professed to know intellectually about the transition to married life is now hitting me with full emotional honesty: I am on a learning curve. A steep one, too. It encompasses learning about myself, about my spouse, about the routines and habits that constitute not just my life, but also the perception of my life that I've held since going off to college. I am realizing, with abashed clarity, how truly convicted I am in the "rightness" of my ways. Surely no other technique can be as efficient or productive. Surely my methods do not require evolution. Surely if I keep hacking at the basil with the wrong knife, the knife will eventually see the wisdom of my approach and fall into line rather than into my fingers. Right? Isn't that how this works?

I have brought a vegetable slicer to a gun fight, and the gun is winning.

As well it should, though. My routines are important -- they make me healthy, calm, productive -- but so are the shared routines currently under development. What we create together will find a way to balance our individual needs with our unified ones. Besides, six weeks is nothing in the grand arc of our life together. We have time; now we will add patience.


Prayer #303: Misplaced Mise en Place

I'm left of where I was.

I see where I used to sit, reliably within reach for all who needed me, but my recent move down the countertop has shifted my existence. Where once I jumped into action, ready and sure, now I await rediscovery, shy and uncertain. Every meal feels ... off. Or maybe I am the only thing that's changed?

Domestic God of hearth and heart -- rearrange my shelves, scatter my habits, but please, when the dust settles (and I have remembered to wipe it up), reveal to me who I've become.

Amen.

Friday, July 22, 2016

On the eve of our wedding

To have and to hold, from this day forth. Photo by Kelly Prizel Photography

As if drawn by magnets, I have ended up behind, near, or next to the same couple at church every weekend for the past month. They are later-middle-aged. Both are overweight. The wife uses a cane for her pronounced limp. The husband is losing his hair. And always, always, they are touching each other.

His hand never leaves her -- her arm, her waist, her back. She leans her head on his shoulder. They hold hands during the homily. They caress each other in that deliberate way that bears the hallmark of conscious, intentional connection. In sickness and in health, in good times and bad, they hold each other -- not as a drowning person grips a preserver, but as a parent holds a newborn, with quiet, protective confidence.

Even when I'm three pews back, I feel their warmth. I absorb their comfort. They look at each other's aging, asymmetrical faces with the kind of joyful gaze that makes the object immortal and invincible. They are in love, loved, simply love.

Tonight, on the eve of our wedding, I pray that my husband-to-be and I become this couple. May we become this way to each other. May we become love.


Prayer #302: Beyond Words

This is serious, God. This is real. This is raw and daunting and profound. This moment evokes mortality alongside meaning, sacrifice alongside choice. Our vows are not lines to mumble; they are promises to solemnify.

Tonight I feel the gravity of that solemnity, the heft of the rest of our lives. We are not sentimental about this moment, God. Marriage will take us to our graves. It will wear us down, wring us dry, ask everything we have, and we are pretty much guaranteed to stumble because we are imperfect, imprecise humans.

But we will succeed where it matters most, God. We will keep the promise to practice love with each other, so that in loving and trying and failing and loving still, we will learn what it means to love you.

Amen.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

The ministry of moving

Handle with care. Photo by NASA ICE/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

In the course of moving last week from my residence of 8.5 years, amid the heightened piles of my accumulated possessions and the growing weight of my Catholic guilt, I remembered how good I have it.

Ok, so the A/C crapped out for a night at the new place. Big deal. It was back the next day. So we didn't have Internet. Who cares. We talked instead. So the entire place smelled like thick wood varnish and the backyard resembled a jungle. THE POINT IS WE HAVE NOT ONLY FLOORS, BUT ALSO A YARD.

Here's the lesson in it all for me: No matter how much I donate or how often I volunteer, there are few educational substitutes for the direct experience of discomfort and uncertainty. Moreover, the discomfort and uncertainty my move created weren't even permanent; we were settled in by the end of the long weekend, and at no point in the process were we hungry, exhausted, or afraid.

So if you hear any short-sighted complaints from me in the weeks ahead, please feel free to ask me these questions:

  • Do you have clean water at hand? (Yes.)
  • Do you have healthy food at arm's reach? (Yes.)
  • Do you have a safe and comfortable place to sleep? (Yes.)
  • Do you have a secure, non-leaking roof? (Yes.)
  • Do you have clean clothes to wear? (Yes.)
  • Do you have warmth when you're cold and coolness when you're hot? (Yes.)
  • Are you able to afford the essentials, and can you pay for them without anxiety? (Yes.)

It took upending my well-worn routine to drive home how much I take for granted. Consider me grateful -- and chastened.

Prayer #301: Gratitude Unpacked

God of efficient moves and hardcore shifts --

When you remove the bubble wrap that cushions my reality, do not fear for my fragility. Knock me, bang me, shake my most delicate, pointy bits with verve. It's the only way to kick my complacency to the curb, where it will sit in the rain awaiting the garbage truck, and the only way to cart me to my new surroundings, when my perspective will become like the old, inherited couch I just hauled in -- a worn relic made fresh by new context.

Amen.