Sunday, December 20, 2020

Giving over

Perspective: This star cluster (Messier 28) is 12 billion years old.
NASA Goddard Photo and Video/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

I don't want to be "the adult" this Christmas season. I don't want to figure out the holiday menu two weeks in advance to cut down on supermarket trips or order gifts online with enough time budgeted for USPS delays or buy a real tree for the first time with a newly obstreperous toddler in the house. I just want to snap my fingers and have ... what, exactly? A "normal" Christmas? A handed-to-me Christmas? No Christmas at all?

For months I've been thinking about this December blog post and jotting down possible angles. My scribbled notes include:

  • Look at the Nativity though the lens of grief and fear—fleeing home, giving birth alone, losing the life they (Mary and Joseph) once knew
  • A list of what I'm grateful for
  • Am I actually a hopeful person?
  • We are allowed to grieve

I could write a post on each of these prompts, but as I look to the rapidly approaching end of the calendar year, I find I am too exhausted to explore them, at least not in an articulate way meant for shared reflection. It's the writing equivalent of my Christmas ennui; I know where I want to end up, but I have zero energy to invest in getting there.

One way I did attempt to fill my tank was to contribute a brief reflection to my church's parishioner-led Advent devotional calendar. (What can I say, I like writing about this liturgical season.) And as fortune would have it, I was assigned today, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, which shares the story of the Annunciation.

I have long been drawn to the Annunciation story, mainly because I like to rebel against the usual interpretation/conclusion that Mary said yes to God without a moment's hesitation and thus we should all be like Mary, meek and acquiescent.

Maybe the events of 2020 further primed me to be contrarian, but as I pondered the day's readings and prepared my reflection, I zeroed in on the use of two buts: "But she was greatly troubled at what was said..." and "But Mary said to the angel, How can this be ...?" On this repeated conjunction hinges real human doubt, a doubt onto which I threw myself with immediate understanding.

Here's what I ended up writing:

“When King David was settled in his palace,
and the LORD had given him rest from his enemies on every side …”

Uncertainty, instability, disruption, fear … these ‘enemies’ have beset me throughout 2020. And now the last weekend of Advent asks me for the impossible: to say “yes” to God amid existential exhaustion.

Given my weariness, how will I find the strength to speak this simple but significant vow? Today’s two readings and psalm all include muscular words that suggest physical power, words like destroy, endure, stand firm, and rock. I can hear these words thundering through tents and pulpits, a call to arms for faithful listeners.

But that’s not the energy my ragged spirit needs right now, which is why I’m connecting more with Mary’s quiet defiance in the gospel reading. Hers is a subtle display of strength: But … but … She does not hide her doubt or questions, but instead engages the archangel in dialogue. In the end, with the soothing language of birth rather than conflict, Mary agrees to God’s offer, and the promise made to David is fulfilled.

Comparing these distinct approaches, I see a way to renew my Advent yes and my depleted hope. It’s not about giving in or giving up, but rather giving over to my questions, concerns, and doubts and holding a spirited conversation with God. For just as David learns that his definition of “house” is much smaller and more literal that God’s expansive vision, so might we learn in our pushing, fretting, and wondering that a life beyond our wildest imaginings is available to us—a life imbued with mystery and miracles. 

Giving over. That's where I've landed this Advent, this Christmas, this bleak midwinter mid-pandemic. I am going to keep asking God lots of questions and attempt to make it more of a conversation than it's been of late. I'm also going to treat myself with compassion, to permit my unpredictable waves of grief, but also to welcome the surprise joys and not begrudge them.

My son is very into a lovely picture book right now titled LIFE, written by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Brendan Wenzel, and it's a simple, peaceful meditation on life's beauties and challenges. The passage that most reliably catches in my throat goes like this:

Life is not always easy.

There will probably be a stretch of wilderness now and then.

But wilderness eventually ends.

And there is always a new road to take.

May we all come to the end of the wilderness soon, dear ones. May our new roads rise to meet us. May our hope renew and make our "yeses" stronger.


Prayer #363: O Antiphon for the Weary Soul

O Wanderer

O Scared One

O Root of Doubt

O Key Unlabeled

O Murky Dawn

O Lost of Nations

O how can I be anything to You except a hapless jumble, a human hodge-podge, a seeker chasing her own unfolding tale? What assurance do You draw from my wavering yes, and what glory do You spot in my flickering hope?

As I wait for You yet again, O Emmanuel, help me envision a relationship beyond my all-too-human scale. May I invite awe and seek breathlessness, so that the puny defenses I like to erect disintegrate in the face of Your mind-blowing love, and what rises instead exceeds even Your wildest dreams.

Amen.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

"God is not afraid of dead things"

Beauty in decay. eyesore9/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
 

Tonight marks the first frost of the season. The second crop of carrots in our garden are shivering underground; the indefatigable Swiss chard bares its stalks to the sharp chill. I am wearing a turtleneck again, and sitting under a blanket, and drinking tea, trying to avoid the truth that all around me things are dying.

---

As I walked my son home from daycare this wintry-feeling evening, he melted down halfway. He had not napped that afternoon, and his overtired/overstimulated little brain decided that the worst thing in the world was either a) me asking him to wear gloves or b) me not allowing him to walk an extra block to view an inflatable turkey up close. (I am never quite sure what he considers to be the inciting incident.)

To him, denial meant death. When I picked up his squirming, raging body and carried him home, my refusal to acquiesce to his demands marked the end of the reality he desired -- no, expected -- and he could not grasp how life might transpire otherwise.

---

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to speak to my first honest-to-goodness acquisitions editor at a mid-size publisher. I was certain I had unwrapped my golden ticket for a book deal. I created a nonfiction proposal and had a promising conversation. I strived to assume nothing, but of course I was already envisioning the moment when my box of first-edition hardcovers would arrive on the front porch, for hope greases the track of imagination.

Then came the brief email explaining that though my writing was beautiful, the sales team didn't think there was enough of a market. Ah, yes. Publishing is a business, not a Medici-level system of patronage. My disappointment consumed me, and my hope shriveled within it, dead on a once-vital vine.

---

We are in an endless state of dying. People are dying -- some naturally, most needlessly -- as the pandemic rages. Our earth is dying -- seasonally in some places, unnaturally worldwide -- as climate change accelerates. And while the election results brought half the country relief, not so the other half, and so now we face our dying idealism about how quickly we might move forward and how differently we all define 'forward.'

---

Charaia Callabrass writes, "God is not afraid of dead things." 

Which means God is not afraid of my strangled hope. My impotent rage. My wide-ranging griefs. My sincere disappointments. My egoistic losses. My dashed plans. God is not afraid of anything that has burned to the ground, whether in a scorching blaze or whimpering embers. For what is death to a God who, as Callabrass frames it, chooses to sit with us in our ashes?

Then why am I afraid of dead things? Do I fear the dead thing itself? Do I fear what leads to the ashes? Or do I fear what might rise from them?

I ponder it now as my tea cools and the window draft persists, as my toddler sleeps and the chard prevails. Tomorrow marks another start, another first day after death. In the morning I will see what lives, and I will join it.
 
 
Prayer #362: Around the Campfire

Grief felt. Unloaded. Flooded. Released. Avoided. Acknowledged.

Joy discovered. Welcomed. Created. Manufactured. Shared. Deferred.

Anger simmered. Ignored. Stoked. Sublimated. Boiled. Doused. 

Hope nurtured. Summoned. Forgotten. Feared. Invited. Desired.

For every emotion traipsing through me, help me treat it as I would a campfire in the clearing -- with heat to feel, flames to corral, and power to yield with wisdom. 
 
Amen.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Have I been radicalized?

First, we vote. Then, I cry. (October 21, 2020)

This morning, my husband and I voted early. We submitted our ballots. We walked back outside in the misty, humid air. I took the selfie you see above. We returned to our car. I closed the door. And I cried.

I cried because I want the election to be over, but I don't think it will be over for a long time.

I cried because we couldn't be at our usual neighborhood polling place. I didn't recognize any of the faces and I was afraid to touch the pens, yet for all that a line of people was still forming on a random Wednesday morning to participate in this civic process.

I cried because I remembered how buoyant and hopeful I felt the morning of Election Day 2016, and how drained and fearful I felt today (13 days early, no less) in comparison.

I cried because American politics and politicians with their destructive self-interest, their blatant power grabs, and their hypocrisy are frustrating efforts to create a loving and just world, and I feel powerless against them.

I cried because the yard signs for Virginia's Amendment 1 ballot initiative have literally the same message -- "Vote YES on 1 to end partisan gerrymandering" vs "Stop gerrymandering and vote NO on 1" -- which captures the confusing spirit of the entire debate and makes me question how much one vote can actually make a difference, now or in the long run.

I cried because I'm an observant Catholic convinced she is voting in accordance with the teachings of the Catholic Church while also knowing many other observant Catholics convinced they are voting in accordance with the teachings of the Catholic Church and yet somehow we are voting the exact opposite way.

I cried because I have made only five phonebanking calls so far (though I have mailed 85 notes).

I cried because I took a week off and it was glorious and I want to live in that rested, restored mode forever.

I cried because I'm afraid to feel hopeful. Or maybe I cried because I've forgotten how to feel hopeful.

I cried because I can't control the outcome.

I cried because I'm not God.

 ---

Becoming a parent two years ago broke me open in a way I didn't expect. It manifested my vulnerability in a separate, distinct human body, a new soul with his own thoughts, discoveries, and wounds, and awakened in me a desperate, visceral hunger to keep my body wrapped, womb-like, around his to ensure his safety.

The slow-drip trauma of 2020 has shifted these emotional tectonic plates further. Now my hunger extends to everything I can't control and to everybody I can't protect. Systems, politics, ideologies ... the jobless, the homeless, the hopeless ... refugees, protestors, patients ... the collective wails, chants, and labored breathing ... our communal suffering overwhelms me, and I grieve for all who feel bereft of their belovedness.

I have always appreciated that the root of the word "radical" is, in fact, root (radix in Latin), which makes it all the more curious (and ultimately poetic) that in the political sphere, "radical" also tends to connote "extremism." Because as multiple forms of pestilence -- virulent illness, insidious racism, capitalist greed, environmental degradation -- duke it out right now for the most casualties, I am increasingly on board with burning it all down. Starting over. Not just reforming but re-imagining our shared world.

For our world has always been shared. It will always be shared. Our roots are the same, and they run beneath our marching, stomping, dancing feet whether we acknowledge them or not. So if recognizing and revering these connections is now considered revolutionary, then more of us need to revolt.

I will surely cry on future Election Days. Such is my wont. But in these not-too-distant years when I do weep over my ballot, let it be from joy. Let it be from gratitude. Let it be from a love so embodied, so grounded, that it arrived at the polling station on its own two feet, hands flexing, ready to start the real work of fixing things.


Prayer #361: Enloven

Stretch my limbs

Straighten my back

Fill my belly

Expand my lungs

Harden my soles

Soften my heart

Mingle my tears

Broaden my mind

Unleash my tongue

Plant my grief

Harvest my love

Amen.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Run toward the fear

Last week I received my absentee mail-in ballot for November's election, and my first feeling upon opening it was dread.

For the first time in my voting life, I am not assuming a peaceful transfer of power. Instead I am expecting corruption, violence, and protests. I am expecting a total upset of democratic norms, and with it a national rupture so immediate and undeniable that it will alter the trajectory of our history.

Basically, all I have ever taken for granted about our society's electoral functioning is under serious question. So ... yeah. Dread.

Up until 2016 I blithely skipped to my polling station once or twice a year, received my sticker, reacted superficially to election outcomes, and carried on with my life. Such was my privilege of being a white, upper-middle-class voter in an affluent suburb of a major metropolitan area; white supremacy had so inculcated me with reliable comfort that I never bothered pricking the rainbow bubble surrounding me, never questioned how its glossy, shimmering surface might be distorting my view.

This year, however—also for the first time in my voting life—the bubble is burst, and I better grasp the stakes beyond my own existence. Am I still benefiting from white supremacy? Yes. Is our country grappling with whether to allow it to continue? Yes. Do I recognize my moral imperative to pop every shiny, comfortable bubble floating past? God, I hope I answer yes.

This past June, I wrote about how I was turning my lament into commitment to racial justice, and I've spent the time since then learning more about what it means to be anti-racist. One big takeaway: Learning and self-education are valuable, but they are only part of the equation. To be fully anti-racist, you must pair your examination with action and work to dismantle the entrenched systems upholding white supremacy.

So, just as I asked in June, I continue to ask, "What can I do?" Thanks to being a little farther along the winding path, and with more self-awareness and discernment about anti-racism to guide me, I've chosen to participate in this moment of electoral reckoning in two ways: by donating more significant and sustained money to organizations that are fighting voter suppression within communities of color, and by volunteering my time to write letters and phone bank in an effort to increase voter turnout among those same communities.

To be completely honest, giving money is the easy part. The idea of cold-calling strangers in other states, even for a nonpartisan purpose such as ensuring people have the voting information they need, churns my stomach. But as I practice confronting the unwatchable and imagine what real fear feels like for way too many people in America—the fear of not having enough food to feed your family, the fear of not having health insurance during a global pandemic, the fear of losing your shelter due to unemployment, the fear of being separated from your child at the border, the fear of dying at the hands of a police officer—I soon snap out of it.

My "fear" is not true fear. It is merely complacency under threat, and my responsibility as an anti-racist person of faith is to push beyond my own comfort and vote, give, and act in ways that undermine structures of sin and greed, support all human rights, and create a just world for generations to come.

Rosa Parks once said, "I have learned over the years that when one's mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear." My mind is made up. I know what must be done. I will run toward the fear, then through it, ideally to a future we will shape anew.


Prayer #360: Bursting

How easy bubbles are to create—a dip, a swish, a swoop—and in the air before us they suddenly float, designed specifically for a moment of fleeting delight, popped with but a poke of a fingertip.

If only we could as easily burst the bubbles we've wrapped around ourselves, iridescent orbs of willful ignorance that look light but weigh us down, circular cells designed for a lifetime of fearful protection.

Help me see my bubble for its true nature: not a window, but a wall. Then help me lift the sledgehammer against it, leaving me shattered but clear-eyed, freer to rise.

Amen.

Monday, August 31, 2020

Strenuous gratitude

Black and white image of hands folded in prayer or clapping.
Chris Guillebeau/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

When I was in college, I knew a little girl aged 4 or 5 who fell ill with a pediatric brain tumor. Don't worry, the story has a happy ending; after successful treatment, she was ultimately healed and today is in college herself.

But at the time, in the immediate wake of her illness, her family started a foundation to raise money for research and to financially assist families of kids battling brain tumors. They named it At Least Kids, inspired by their daughter's natural and persistent reframing of any less-than-ideal situation.

For example: The ice cream shop may have been out of her favorite flavor, but at least she got to enjoy a treat with her family. The family dog may have been old, but at least he still loved snuggling. The brain tumor might have returned, but at least for right now she was alive.

Though many years have now passed—and I've since read reams of articles and books counseling that saying "at least..." to anyone grieving is one of the least effective statements you can offer—the construct refuses to cede its synapse in my own brain. When someone I know gets sick or dies, I consider the length of their lives and the richness therein. When people lose their jobs, I mentally calculate how long their savings might carry them. Or when life goes truly off the rails—with extreme natural disasters, say, or a global pandemic—I grasp at the few straws remaining. Relative health. Relative stability. Relativity itself.

In our current off-the-rails moment, though, I've felt my gratitude becoming strenuous. "Unremittingly and ardently laborious," said the rhythmic OED definition, and I nodded too vigorously when I read it. Finding the upside to much of anything right now is exhausting. My stock thankful phrases sound hollow after five months of repeating them, as if constant recitation will guarantee the blessings continue even if my heart isn't really on board.

Yet gratitude, and the hope and resilience it fosters, requires exactly such repetition. Not in a "fake it 'til you make it" way, but more like weight training, in that your gratitude muscle becomes stronger and more responsive over time. And also like weight training, gratitude can and will sometimes be, well, strenuous.

Viewing "at least" through this lens, I can deploy the words to be an internal mantra rather than an external diminishment of grief. In the context of practicing gratitude, the phrase might help grease the tracks; it requires breath to speak, stillness to articulate, and presence to bridge it to a fact, idea, or sensation that helps my thankfulness catch up.

In these waning days of summer, as sunlight drifts off earlier and humidity drops and I find myself pre-grieving the passage into winter, now is the right time to reboot my gratitude. Let me start small:

I am grateful for late-season peaches over-ripening in our fruit bowl.

I am grateful for eagerly anticipated holds arriving at the library.

I am grateful I heard the cicadas whir in a sonic wave across the backyard last week, unceasing and undulating, their sound its own natural mantra.

At least I can taste.

At least I can see.

At least I am alive to grieve, to listen, to be struck by awe.


Prayer #359: When Life Is Hard (Or, A Companion to When Life is Good)

Our futures are uncertain. Our present times are scary. Life as we know it is fluctuating, while many lives are flat-out ending. Fear preoccupies not only our minds, but our will to hope.

Yet certain moments become like the white tags I've seen tied and fluttering on gratitude trees in distant cities—quiet instances that could be overlooked as charming public art if not for the deep sincerity and anonymous unity of their handwritten messages. For what we write when no one is reading, what we admit when no one is listening, what we profess when no one seems to care, least of all ourselves ... there lies our truth.

Though right now only a fraying string holds me to a fragile branch, still I am attached. May I feel the tug of return in the breath between gusts and recall to what—and to Whom—I am connected.

Amen.

Monday, July 27, 2020

The lesson of the green tomato

Green tomato. Credit: Jeff Kubina/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0
Jeff Kubina/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Six weeks ago, we received a green tomato in our produce box from the farmers' market. For four weeks, that tomato, pale as new growth in spring, sat on the kitchen counter awaiting my action. I looked up recipes ("Google, can you bake fried green tomatoes?") but kept abandoning them: we didn't have buttermilk, I ran out of time, one tomato does not a meal make. So the tomato moved around the counter instead, a rock-hard reminder of everything that I was failing to accomplish during the pandemic.

Then, two weeks ago, I noticed the green tomato was no longer green. Now it had a slight pinkish hue and was deepening its red color by the day. I had waited so long to do anything that my early-season produce had managed to ripen. And as soon as it was ready, I cut it up and made a salad and gobbled it for lunch.

I hated waiting for that tomato, though.

Not because I wanted it to ripen; that was wholly an accident. Rather, I hated how the tomato came to symbolize my uncharacteristic inaction. That single piece of fruit renewed in me a pure fury about how nothing right now is easy, everything is backwards, and somehow it's all on me to excel in bizarre circumstances.

Ah. So I didn't hate my inaction. I hated that I didn't feel permitted to be inactive.

With the example of the green tomato before me, I stopped formulating answers and instead formulated questions:

What if I waited?

What if I did nothing?

What if I read a book?

What if I took a nap?

What if I gave it a day?

What if I gave it a month?

What if I didn't follow up right away?

What if I left it on my to-do list?

What if I did not force a decision?

What if I let someone else handle the situation?

What if I let time unravel a solution?

What if I accepted the presence of unknowns?

What if I released the desire to know at all?

Not forever, mind you. Just for the moment. Because let me tell you, that tomato salad was delicious -- fresh, seasonal, just in time -- and it made me crave more.


Prayer #358: Fate Not Accompli

My fate is untwisted, rewritten in the stars, and certainly not worse than death. Why predetermine my predestination, why lick the unsealed envelope of life, when fortune can sidestep the bold to favor the meek?

God who is just within time, teach me that life is less about my lot in it and more that less can be a lot all on its own.

Amen.

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

How I'm transforming my lament into commitment


This blog entry is not for art or contemplation (though I do have a prayer, because really, how can I not?). It is not for applause or commendation, though I welcome discussion. It is for accountability, and for moving forward with intention.

For a week I've watched public outrage grow online and in the streets against the most recent senseless killings of black men and women (George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, countless others spanning centuries), and through my despair I've prayed: What can I do?

But my question is not new. I've been asking it of myself consciously for four years, taking the safest of baby steps toward answering it—reading books about racism, seeking out black authors, following a wider and more diverse circle of people on my social channels—yet only now am I internalizing the crucial distinction that thinking myself not racist is not the same as being actively anti-racist.

Only now am I accepting that I need to confront the waters I have swam in since birth, the air I have breathed, the miasma of white supremacy that has instilled in me expectations and afforded me privileges based simply on the color of my skin.

Only now am I understanding that I am not embarking on this journey for a semester or year or a decade, but for a lifetime. As agent Rachelle Gardner put it on Instagram, "As a white person, I know I can never be other than a recovering racist but I will do my best to keep recovering, keep listening, keep learning, and keep speaking up."

My goals right now are two-fold:
  1. To move from decrying racism in the abstract to understanding its roots, acknowledging its presence in my thoughts and actions, recognizing the implications and consequences in American society at large, and intentionally working to dismantle this great sin wherever I encounter it.
  2. To become a more conscious and informed parent who creates a diverse and inclusive community that my family and I can experience, contribute to, and learn from together.
To start moving toward these goals, I've identified six concrete strategies that stem from who I am and where I am at this moment:
  1. I will read at least one book connected to anti-racism every 4-6 weeks. If you want to swap notes or suggestions, I invite you to check out my rapidly growing anti-racism book list on Goodreads. (Not captured here, but related documentaries, podcasts, and fiction will be part of my expanded media diet.)
  2. I will continue participating in my parish's Minkisi Ministry, an interracial prayer group whose name means "healing objects" in Swahili, where I will nurture my faith with prayer, reflection, and active listening.
  3. I will also commit to a regular independent prayer practice (something I've always been embarrassingly spotty at) that I hope will root my interior work in God-given love and a God-driven thirst for justice.
  4. I will research and identify 1-2 organizations that promote racial justice and support them financially. (Exact angles to be determined after more reading and prayer. But I do commit to putting my money where my mouth is.)
  5. I will practice speaking out against racist, prejudiced, and biased comments when I encounter them in the conversations that make me most inclined to remain silent—within my extended family. I want to, as author and speaker Austin Channing Brown says, "trouble the narrative."
  6. I will research formal anti-racism programs and commit to completing at least one of them (for example, Be the Bridge) within the next two years. I will also invite white friends to join me to help expand the circle of education and commitment.
And then, in six months, I will report back here on my progress and share what I've learned thus far.

So where do I hope to end up? As a lifelong student. As a useful advocate. As a deeper storyteller. As a child of God seeking to realize God's kingdom on earth. All on the right side of history.

But mainly, I want to fulfill these lines from this call-and-response prayer, Touch Me with Truth that Burns Like Fire by Ted Loder, that we recite regularly in our Minkisi group:

[...] set me free, Lord,
free to try new ways of living;
free to forgive myself and others;
free to love and laugh and sing;
free to lay aside my burden of security;
free to join the battle for justice and peace;
free to see and listen and wonder again
at the gracious mystery of things and persons [...]

May we all find such freedom.


Prayer #357: The Wound Reopens

Clench my fist so I might grasp what's at stake. Release my grip on what I think is true. Lift my palms in supplication for what the world desperately needs.

Make me vulnerable, exposed, unguarded. Let the blows land true on my softest flesh. For the wound is Love; its cure, the same.

Amen.