Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas! It's here!


Christ of the cosmos, living Word,
come to heal and save...
Incognito, in our streets,
beneath the concrete,
between the cracks,
behind the curtains,
within the dreams,
in ageing memories,
in childhood wonder,
in secret ponds, in broken hearts,
in Bethlehem stable,
still small voice,
Word of God, amongst us.

-- Brian Woodcock & Jan Pickard

With great love and hope, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas!


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Advent's four essential truths


It's happening. We're here. The fourth week of Advent. For me the season rode in smoothly, not at all like a bumpy donkey ride or a nighttime flight by foot. I sang in a choir, sent Christmas cards early, enjoyed my tree, shopped for simple gifts, and reflected a lot about a good many things.

So before we're all swept away in the holiday hubbub, I just wanted to share the four essential truths I encountered throughout the season (my own emphases added). They paused me when I needed contemplation, prodded me when I needed action.

Like digesting that inadequacy is no barrier for God:
I myself am very glad that the divine child was born in a stable, because my soul is very much like a stable, filled with strange unsatisfied longings, with guilt and animal-like impulses, tormented by anxiety, inadequacy and pain. If the Holy One could be born in such a place, that One can be born in me also. I am not excluded. -- Morton Kelsey
Or considering that from insecurity comes strength:
Every birth is an unequivocal "yes" to life. We enter the complexities on earth without any assurance that our lives will be smooth and we won't have difficulties. We don't know whether we will have a disability, experience the trauma of an earthquake or fire, or struggle with addiction, or feel deep loneliness. Yet in spite of the insecurities, the unknowns, all the possible things, that could go wrong, we are somehow willing to risk for life, we are willing to risk for love. Today, in the midst of the busyness of Christmas preparations, take a moment to appreciate the courage it takes to say yes. -- Patrice J. Tuohy
Or practicing the discipline of intentional silence:
In the midst of all the holiday business and drama these five simple and profound phrases from a woman who lives in Cairo, Egypt should give us pause, or maybe even better a jolt, to our souls.

“Silence your body to listen to words.
“Silence your tongue to listen to thoughts.
“Silence your thoughts to listen to your heart beating.
“Silence your heart to listen to your spirit.
“Silence your spirit to listen to His Spirit.”

-- Le padre ver livre, quoting Mama Maggie Gobran
Or simply remembering -- grasping? -- our full worth and potential in God's eyes:
... All the neighbors were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him. -- Luke 1:65-66 (about the birth of John the Baptist)
Maybe these excerpts can do the same for you in these waning Advent days. Happy waiting, y'all. But even happier realizing.

Prayer #193: Soulstice

In these, the final midnight moments of a waiting season, let's not rush the revelation. Instead, let's carry our blankets to the hilltop and stake out seats to watch the sun steal over the horizon, ray by piercing ray, until our eyes water from its brilliance and we forget that it was ever dark or that we were ever cold.

For You are almost here, and we are almost ready.

Amen.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

My raging case of Christmas Guilt

Christmas Guilt. It starts with a gentle call to notice and participate in good acts around us ...



... grows into a pointed urge to drop the emphasis on "stuff" ...



... and ends with a hands-on-hips, face-the-music, flame-throwing appeal to let go of our material dependency and re-focus on the greater call of the season.



Here's how my internal thought process goes at this time of year after watching videos like these:
  • Hi Conscience, this is Brain.
  • Oh hey.
  • So, I contributed to Adopt-a-Family at church and made a couple year-end donations ... I'm good, right?
  • Well, how much did you spend on that vs. what you spent in gifts for family, friends, and Fella?
  • Does that matter?
  • I think it does.
  • I don't think it's any of your business.
  • Fine.
  • (awkward silence) It's about more than money, anyway. I also listened exclusively to religious music and spent quality time with my loved ones. And I wasn't extravagant -- definitely stayed within my means.
  • The same means you could have shared with others?
  • (pause) I am so over you.
Seriously, though ... how much am I called to do? I do my best to focus my energy on the season's inherent spiritual call. I tithe. I donate. I spend time with people. I avoid malls, commercials, and vapid pop music. And I still feel a little itchy.

Why? Has the recession made others' needs greater and more apparent than ever? Am I growing older and wiser to the world around me? Or is this because I'm Catholic, and we like guilt?

Partially these reasons, and likely something bigger. The little Linus inside my chest is looping his 'That's what Christmas is all about' monologue and reminding me that it's more than a season, it's a way of life. As Richard Beck notes in his excellent blog post (via Amy Moffitt again), "I truly want people to spend time working on their relationship with God. I just want them to do it by taking the time to care about the person standing right in front of them."

I think that might be it. Every December I go one step further than I might the rest of the year to serve others, and it feels wonderful, but then I let the effort into another well-intentioned ghost of Christmas past. Well, not this year. Let's make the next one a year of perpetual #goodspotting, a year of less stuff, and a year rife with conspiracies of the most loving kind.

Prayer #192: Bow

Bows on presents we wish to open give joy for a minute. Bows to a throne we wish to approach give joy for a lifetime. So bend my knees lower, stretch my arms as wide as they go, and face me in a new direction, so I can worship with abandon and draw closer to all You ask of me.

Amen.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

A paean to the unexceptional


Behold! My recent spate of unexceptionality:
  • I opened the door at Cosi and gouged out the top of my foot. Bled my way through ordering a salad.
  • I cooked a chicken in a pot in the oven. Pulled out the pot, set it on the stove. Forget pot had been in oven and grabbed handle with my bare hand. Spent rest of the night with an ice pack strapped to my palm.
  • I joined the Festival Singers at church for a special Advent performance. At my audition, the director told me I was breathy but could fix that with a little help from my voice teacher. Note: I've been working on support with my voice teacher for three years.
  • I decided to bake cookies for a work event. Pulled out every conceivable utensil and spread them all over the kitchen. When I was adding flour to the batter, I turned the mixer on too soon and sprayed flour across the floor, counter, and my pants.
  • I went to a Step II class at the gym. Should've known better than to start at level two. Ended up marching in place for a good third of the class, and spent the other two-thirds avoiding eye contact with the other, coordinated attendees. Am ashamed to admit I gloated when one guy fell on the floor.
  • I put my dirty dishes in the fridge.
What's hardest about these moments for me (besides the near-brushes with hospitalization) is how remind-y they are about my shortcomings. Like I need more public examples of my gracelessness, my impatience, my inability to bake the same thing twice.

Worse, these are mild. Sit them next to other situations of the past week -- trying to manage a second person when I haven't figured out managing the first yet, preferring Top Chef to a phone chat with Fella, willfully procrastinating on (or ignoring) my creative writing -- and it makes the Step II debacle look like a raging success.

Where's the Advent in all this, I've asked myself. What could God possibly want with such ineptitude, such measliness?

And then I read this:
The miracle of all miracles is that God loves the lowly ... God is not ashamed of human lowliness, but goes right into the middle of it, chooses someone as an instrument and performs miracles right there, where they are last expected. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
If God's not ashamed, then why am I? If God felt (as the Advent tradition shares) that becoming human is good enough for Him, then why isn't being human good enough for me?

My unexceptionality is itself unexceptional, and thus not worthy of worry, because it's the human condition. And when I forget this, I'll just go to Step to remember.

Prayer #191: Paean to the Unexceptional

How unexceptionable that I am unexceptional.

How commonplace my commonality, how typical my type. No great shakes am I, not even a mediocre wiggle. I came in second place in the second-rate runoff. I am so so-so that no one would bother writing home about me -- just this run-of-the-mill pedestrian they passed, unacknowledged, on the street.

What then about my undistinguished life distinguishes me to You?

In your eyes I am radical poetry masquerading as prose. I appear as routine, but am really revolt. To You it is unexceptionable to say I am anything less than exceptional.

So how are we -- together -- to prove You right?

Amen.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Of Mary and Muppets (trust me, it makes sense)


This post is about Advent (mostly Mary). And Muppets (mostly Muppets). And the unexpected thread that ties them together.

At first I thought I was brewing this idea because this past week's highlights related to either entity in some way, be it festooning Fella's front yard with lights or sitting in a movie theater watching furry creatures from my childhood flop across the screen. All happy things, to be sure, but the connection wasn't clear.

Then, in my online meandering, I came across these posts:
As “Mah Nà Mah Nà” climbed the charts, the fledgling Children’s Television Workshop was struggling to settle on a format for their educational TV program, Sesame Street. CTW co-founder Joan Ganz Cooney had recently given the OK to bring in Jim Henson, whose Muppet characters had at that point been seen only in commercials and on variety programs like The Ed Sullivan Show. Henson, a bearded bohemian with no experience in children’s programming, was something of an odd choice, but that was just why Cooney wanted him.

Mahna Mahna, as the character would come to be known, made his televised debut on Nov. 27, 1969, during Sesame Street’s first season. [...] In Street Gang, Michael Davis’s history of Sesame Street, several of Henson’s colleagues describe his artistic style as “affectionate anarchy,” and it doesn’t take much in the way of exegesis to see an anti-conformist message at work here. As Mahna Mahna’s antics grow wilder, the Snouths grow more uneasy and eventually counterattack, smother him with their bodies. But Mahna Mahna eventually breaks free and runs right at the camera, making contact to the sound of shattering glass.
     -- Sam Adams, "Mahna Mahna," Slate

... I imagine a Mary who would look me in the eye and tell me to get my shit together... with love, but also with a gleam in her eye that would let me know she was serious and would open up a can on me without a moment's hesitation if necessary. I imagine Mary with a firm jaw, saying "Yes, if I could bear the Son of God, bear the shame of my pregnancy and all of the difficulties with and questions around raising Him... and then watch Him die, then you can handle what God places in your life." I imagine a Mary who even now says "that's not too trifling a problem for me to take to God for you. Hold on, I'll be right back." I imagine her tough and strong and a little weathered. She was a carpenter's wife, after all. It's not like she had it easy.
    -- Amy Moffitt, Hail Mary, Bad-Ass Queen of Heaven

That's when I was able to pin down the elusive thread: The most unexpected people take unexpected action to achieve unexpected outcomes.

Think about it. Both Jim Henson and Mary were unlikely heroes in their respective contexts. They were on predictable paths until the powers-that-be asked them to do something beyond their ken. Their subsequent actions revealed their non-conformity -- Henson through his artistic vision, Mary through her decision to stick by her "Yep, it was God" story for over two millenia.

In a way, you could say that Mary pioneered 'affectionate anarchy.' Sporting a pregnant belly out of wedlock was not a subtle pronouncement. It was direct, defiant, and courageous. The result, however -- a child -- was a universal human experience others could understand and rally behind. (Much like how we TV viewers bought wholesale the idea a talking frog playing a banjo in a swamp. Because we all got that it's not easy being green.)

Strange comparisons to Jesus and Kermit aside, consider this: Advent is, by definition and design, a season of expectation. Yet its principal players -- and more broadly, its reason for being -- are any thing but expected. So, in honor of this dichotomy, let's stay open to the pleasure of surprise this season. For whether you prefer Maranatha or Mahna Mahna, there is always room for wonder.

Prayer #190: Didn't See That One Coming

I grew up knowing you would come

once we'd picked the turkey clean
and scrubbed the windowsills,

once we'd watched the pink wax drip
and arranged the figurines,

once we'd chosen tags at church
and opened all the little doors

and had in every way prepared for you.

But only now, grown up, I see
that you were there before the chores
and will be there long after

and for that wonder
I was unprepared.

Amen.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The turkey-patience paradigm

Look! A hipsterized turkey!

This time of year in the U.S. always instigates wracking self-doubt among first-time poultry preparers. "What if I mess up the turkey?" they ask, gripping a baster for dear life, when what they really want to know is, "OMG WILL I RUIN THANKSGIVING?"

I can't vouch for the success of your turkey, but I can share with you the turkey-patience paradigm, an excellent model that will carry you through the holiday and beyond. Here are the basic tenets:

Plan what you can plan. If you're buying a frozen turkey, purchase it at least 2-3 days in advance so it can thaw out. If you're cooking the day of, look up cooking times and work backwards (leaving 20 minutes or so at the end for browning. Then, if all hell breaks loose in your kitchen that day, you at least don't have to worry about the turkey.

Simplicity is key. Stuffing a turkey is counter-productive; it takes longer for the turkey to cook and dries out the meat, so don't worry about cramming every single thing into this one bird.

Shine the spotlight on what matters most. While following fancy turkey recipes can make you feel like Mario Batali, just a little olive oil, salt, pepper, and basic spices will take you far. Fill the bottom of the roasting pan with cut-up carrots, celery, and onion for flavor that showcases, rather than masks, the meat.

Time is your friend. Leave. The turkey. ALONE. Do not open it every 10 seconds and baste; again, it's counter-productive to let all the heat out of the oven. Also, don't be in a rush to brown the darn thing. Leave an aluminum tent on it for 3/4 of the cooking time, remove it for the last quarter, and voila! a beautiful, moist, unburned turkey.

Take a moment to enjoy your success. We all love the classic Norman Rockwell Freedom from Want painting for a reason -- because everyone is living fully in the moment and appreciating the cook's handiwork. So before you take a knife to your turkilicious product, stand back, take it in, and admire what you hath wrought. You earned that much at least.

Got that? Plan where you can, keep it simple, focus on the big picture, let time do its work, and don't forget to take it all in. A recipe for patience -- and one helluva winning turkey. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Prayer #189: Baste Not, Want Not

Keep me heated
Cook me through
Don't let me dry
Before I'm due

Keep me hearty
So I last
May I enjoy
Then breaking fast

Keep me happy
(Sane, at least)
And grant me patience
Til the feast!

Amen.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

7 steps to reclaiming your personal plotline

Palacio Real. Spain 2011.

She was a little slip of a thing -- rounding 70 by my calculation, with skinny bird legs and a smoker's laugh. I didn't put together who she was until the conference emcee read her bio: "Patricia MacLachlan is an award-winning author, know for the beloved classics Sarah, Plain and Tall, Skylark, Baby ..."

My 9-year-old self raced into the Wyndam Hotel ballroom, knocked me off the seat, and sat in my place, chin in hand, ready to hear everything and anything this woman had to say.
 
Sarah, Plain and Tall stands as a seminal moment in my young reading life. It introduced me, a suburban kid accustomed to hills, trees, and the modern automobile, to a windswept, rural, bygone prairie world. Its language was spare and direct. I remember feeling trusted as I read it -- trusted to grasp its deeper significance, trusted to carry its emotion forward.

The memories flooded me as I sat there, an excited participant in the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Tri-Regional Conference this past weekend, surrounded by 150 or so people who have almost identical dreams to me: to put their own writing in the hands of children and trust them to impart it to others.

Being so surrounded is at once comforting and daunting. Comforting because you're among your 'tribe,' as SCBWI founder Lin Oliver said. You can throw terms like MG and YA around and people don't just nod politely, they ask you for your hooks and your querying progress.

Yet it's daunting because these same 150 people -- a small slice of the 25,000 or so members worldwide -- are all reaching for the same brass ring you are ... and there's no guarantee there will be enough brass rings for everyone.

Session after session, question after question this weekend, it sunk in that I have signed on for a mighty big goal. The chances of me being the next Patricia MacLachlan are, at the moment, non-existent. I need much more practice. More risk. More originality.

This, by the way, is when I kicked my 9-year-old self back off the chair and groaned, "How the hell am I gonna make this happen?"

Well, by writing. But not by writing any book the book a book (though that's a clear first step). I can apply what I learned about writing at the conference to every aspect of fulfilling this goal. For example:

1. Choose action. In picture books, illustrators can illustrate action best. Dialogue is static; characters can only talk so much before they must get up and DO something. So must I be about my 10,000 hours of practice. I must type. I must research. I must read. I must act.

2. Give myself a break. No first draft is perfect. It's not supposed to be. I struggle with this, as I prefer delusion and often think I am above improvement. But try as I might, I can't escape the fact that my skills are not at genius level. So I'll embrace it instead and see what emerges from my imperfection.

3. Grant myself permission to play. Here's a novel idea I picked up: enjoy the process! Imagine that! Stop thinking about the end goal and focus on the joy of creation. Be wacky. Make words up. Ignore the rules -- they won't always get you where you want to go.

4. Be able to surprise myself. Be unpredictable. Don't fall into old habits on or off the page. When I know everything that's coming, the magic disappears. I hereby challenge myself to forfeit control and see what my busy brain comes up with on its own.

5. When in doubt, take it piece by piece. Achieving goals does not equal scaling monoliths. It's going step by step, usually forward, sometimes backward, but always in motion (see #1). Am I overwhelmed by the years -- decades even --  it could take to get published? Then I'll write one chapter this month. Or five pages this week. Or one paragraph today. The point is, begin.

6. Nothing is sacred. Writing is often about choice. My stories can't have it all and neither can I. What I have to preserve is the core of my story -- the unflappable nugget of original thought and universal truth that makes my work sing. Which brings me to ...

7. Do I have heart? Or to put it another way, do I care? Why am I writing it? Do I make you care enough? What about this work matters? Why should I share it with the great wide world? What's getting me up each day to do this? Can I even answer these questions? Cuz if not, I best be revisiting my motives.

I'll admit, my first professional critique this weekend was less than stellar. I saw other attendees raise their hands when asked "Who's published?" and I heard other aspiring writers talk about their agents & editors, newly acquired. I watched all the dynamic keynote speakers -- all acclaimed authors and illustrators -- and thought, "I could do that. I'd love to do that, in fact. One day. Someday? Oh god."

But then I remember what Patricia MacLachlan -- published author, beloved storyteller, sassy speaker -- said in the ballroom of the Wyndham: "As writers we whisper in the ears of children."

To which my 9-year-old self nodded and then put her nose back in her book.

Hang on, kids. I'm coming.

Prayer #188: A Plot Afoot

In the beginning, I feared the end.

In the middle, I worried I hadn't begun.

In the end, I wondered why I'd bothered wasting the energy fearing and worrying when instead I could have been enjoying the beginning and the middle.

Lord, help me live each act as it comes and turn the pages at just the right pace.

Amen.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Well, I *could* change, but that would require work.


I should really listen to myself more.

I knew I wanted to write about change this week. Earlier this fall, my workplace underwent a not-insignificant reorganization. Our vision, our operations, and our staff are in a state of reinvention. And it's in transitions like this when you discover/remember/wonder what you and others are made of.

For example: I fancy myself a smooth agent of change, someone who stays calm amid crisis, takes the long view, errs on the side of optimisim. This is a very generous and perhaps delusional view. Because I also get knots in my stomach when people are unhappy. I soak up others' stress (as if my own weren't substantial enough) like a sponge on steroids. I bought a bottle of Chianti earlier this week just for myself.

Put down the phone. I didn't drink it in one sitting. I just wanted to.

Anyway.

Now that we're a couple months into the reorg, I'm questioning how well I roll with the punches -- and how much better I could roll with them if I put my mind to it. Which is why I wanted to write about change this week. And also why I procrastinated heavily, because I didn't want to spend yet another hour in my own head thinking about such sticky matters.

Until, that is, I remembered I have already written about this very thing. Over three years ago, in fact, when I was still living in Philadelphia and undergoing my (first) quarter-life crisis.

Here, take a look:
Spare change. Noun. The coinage and assortment of other small metal objects found in pockets/couch cushions/tip jars around the world.

Now try this on for size: Spare change. Verb. To use life's shifting events frugally or carefully. To avoid the full experience of new decisions or circumstances.

Or this: Spare change. Adjective. Bare, as referring to life. Lacking in amplitude or quantity. Plain, unembellished, and just plain boring.

Do you really want to spare change in your life? Do you want your picture next to these definitions? Ariane de Bonvoisin wants to make sure both your answers are NO.

She and her book -- The First 30 Days: Your Guide to Any Change (and Loving Your Life More) -- were the subject of a Guy Kawasaki interview earlier this week that caught my eye in my RSS travels.

Maybe my own recent life changes were still fresh in my mind. Maybe two separate conversations with my Philly BFFs about new directions and doubts kickstarted the train of thought. In any event, I read the article, and discovered the nine principles that make people good at change (straight from Ariane's mouth):
1. They have a positive belief about change and are generally optimistic. I call these people "change optimists."

2. They believe in the change guarantee: that something good always comes from change.

3. They know that they possess a "change muscle"--that they are strong, capable, powerful, and intuitive enough to handle any change that comes into their lives or that they want to initiate.

4. They refuse to become paralyzed by "change demons"--negative emotions that arise during change.

5. They don't resist change--choosing instead to accept the reality of their situation.

6. They understand that their thoughts, the words they say and the feelings they allow themselves to experience during change have a direct affect on how easily they move through the transition.

7. They believe that life has a deeper meaning than what can easily be seen or felt, that something greater is at play, and that no change is arbitrary.

8. They surround themselves with a support team to help them move through change.

9. They refuse to get stuck during change. They keep moving and take care of themselves mentally, physically, and emotionally.

You can view these principles through a few prisms -- spirituality, pragmatism, philosophy, and so on. Whatever your context, though, the truths remain the same. Change happens to you, within you, and through you. All three steps must be present for change to succeed.

So don't be stingy with change. Grab it, gulp it, glory in it. Otherwise, the only thing getting lost in the couch cushions will be you.

(Original post here)

Ah, to be so young and wise again.

But really, I think the point still stands. I can hide under the bed for the rest of my life, or I can go step by step in supporting myself through every transition, major or minor, that life delivers.

Change is, after all, inevitable. Let's not just roll with it -- let's make the most of it.

Prayer #187: Be The River?

Be the river, said my friend, by which he meant go with the flow, adapt, and any other number of calm and soothing water metaphors.

I think he forgets, however, that rivers can rage. They freeze under winter's grip, choke on melted snow, explode after summer storms, even gasp for air in arid seasons.

I'm only the river in that I react more than I control. I don't know what rocks lie in my path or how fast the current flows or where my destination rests. At best, I reflect the sunlight when it reaches me and absorb the raindrops when they fall. And always I move forward, drawn by a pull set long before I joined the earth, on a course that will persist long after I depart.

Still, I'll be the river, God, not because I have no choice, but because You have given me power between the banks: fluid strength, coursing energy, and the ability to heal myself in time.

Amen.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The anti-fright night

Photo by The Oceanista

The strangest thing happened last night: I laughed myself awake.

I was already heading to bed too late as it was (a nasty post-traveling habit). Visions of the early snow and the lingering scent of winter wouldn't leave me. I was snug and cozy beneath the covers. But instead of drifting into la-la land, my brain decided it was playtime.

Cue all sorts of fanciful daydreams about the upcoming holiday season. I pictured Fella arriving at my parents' house under cover of a light December snow. I saw the whole La Vigilia table laid out with more candles than a European cathedral. I could feel my friend's baby bouncing on my knee again. I inserted guests who might come and sat them next to relatives I never thought they'd meet. I scripted every dirty joke, every silly action, every loud conversation that could possibly occur with every conceivable combination of friends and family over any number of probable meals.

And I put myself in such a good mood that I stayed up for another hour, just smiling and castle-building.

What a way to greet the night: not with things that go bump, but things that make you grin.

Prayer #186: Sweet Dreams

You arrive in the moment my eyelids flutter against the deepening dark.

You wait for the moment my muscles forgo their stubborn insistence on perpetual motion.

You reach out at the moment my mind puts aside today's reality and doesn't yet worry about tomorrow's.

You hold me in the moment when only gravity tethers me to my bed,

And with a gentle snip,

You release me into weightless joy.

Amen.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Space to be bold


It happened. The Buffalo Unscripted premiere. With oohs and aahs and cries of "loading?", it was over. Now this six-month project in which I've invested a significant chunk of my heart is in the past tense. Sooo ... what?

I've written a lot of this project and this city this year -- about its capacity to make you question your purpose in life, why it's a model for the future, what makes it phenomenal, etc. And plenty more has been written/said/explained/celebrated elsewhere, especially in the last week.

So I'm not really going to gush more about Buffalo in this post. Instead, I'm going to tell you what I've learned.

Consider the following (emphasis mine):
"Looking at Prish's big table, where you can watch ideas bounce and bump around like pinball, I wondered if I belonged in Buffalo. If I needed the challenges the city faces to push me into being a different, better, less predictable version of myself. If moving to a place where there's room - lots of room - to be bold would be the end of my conversations that begin with, "You know, I always wish I had..."" 
This quote is courtesy of my friend and colleague Jason, the mastermind of the whole Unscripted concept, from a Buffalo Rising post he wrote a couple weeks ago. And it got me thinking -- what place in my life allows me to be bold?

For me, Buffalo did come to be a place where I was making a difference, or, at the very least, shining a spotlight on those who were. But I've experienced that connection in dunks and flashes elsewhere over the years, from producing PSAs for local volunteer organizations in Syracuse, to coordinating Manna on Main Street in North Wales, to working in the nonprofit sector in DC. Which tells me that it's not so much the place on its own, but an element within it that unearths what sometimes gets buried in my daily dramas and existential crises.

The right place unlocks what is already inside you. It does not make you; it reveals you. It might be easier to be your true/best self in that place, but that doesn't exist only there, because you now carry that self-knowledge wherever you go.

This is a comfort and a challenge. Because once the genie's out, you have a responsibility to act on it. Your mandate is to capture that momentum when NOT in that place -- in fact, many miles from it -- and draw on its essence rather than its reality. You can't wait to be back there. You have to try to capture that lightning now, here, again.

Being bold also takes courage to listen. I refer to it as my 'god voice,' but it's also intuition, gut instinct, that 'little voice,' conscience, however you regard it. It asks you to tune in to what you have to do next -- go where you have to go, not always physically, but psychologically too.

If I have taken anything away from my experience with this project, it's that I don't want to waste my days. I want meaningful work, friendly neighbors, and a down-to-earth community. I want four seasons and a shared past. I want great friends at my side making it happen, and family at home who understand why I'm doing it.

I don't know if I have to move to Buffalo to make that happen. In fact, moving would simply be the period at the end of a very long conversation with myself first. At this point, I have a clearer idea of what I want and how I want to enact it. That is a big, bold, important step, taken within the space I've made in my heart. And that space is only growing wider.

Prayer #185: Bolded

Lord of over-thinking, forgive my laser-like focus on the negative, which tends to drum up heartening zingers like these:

What if I hurt him?
What if I get it wrong?
What if I hate it?
What if I overreact?
What if I can't cut it?

Well, what if I changed my vocabulary?

What if I help her?
What it I get it right?
What if I love it?
What if I respond?
What if I never try?

What would happen then, God? What might be? What would You make of it? Of me?

Amen.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

My guardian angel is a videographer

Photo by Mikusagi

Angels rarely call on the phone. But this one did.

He rang my colleague Jason this past Saturday morning, just to follow up and see how things were going with our homestretch, mad dash, full-on sprint to the finish line for production of Buffalo Unscripted. The guys had bonded earlier in the month over their shared Texas roots and a common AV project. The angel really had no reason to follow up; the previous project was done, and he was not involved in Unscripted in any way. But he called anyway, just because.

His timing could not have been more perfect. Jason was hunched over the editing booth, watching both Macs whirring with his bloodshot eyes, wondering how the hell you make a Blu-Ray disc. The angel knew. He knew quite a bit, actually. And he walked Jason through it, step by step, link by link, taking two hours of his off-the-clock time to help our overwhelmed project leader burn the right thing.

Turns out that the Texas Video Angel (as we now call him) was dead-on in his advice. Yesterday, a mere day from our deadline, Jason successfully transformed our blood, sweat, tears, and incessant giggles of the past six months into a movie theater-ready format.

The Texas Video Angel's interception meant the difference between a pixelated amateur effort and a smooth final product. Better yet, it helped the whole team relax into the excitement we've been bottling up since July out of fear we couldn't realize our vision -- not to mention saved a couple years of Jason's life.

The Texas Video Angel is now the humble patron saint of Buffalo Unscripted. I know what he says is true, because the Blu-Ray worked fine on my player at home. But more than that, he reminds me of one of our project's key discoveries: that people will constantly surprise you for the better.

I hope he keeps watching over us as we premiere our project on Friday. We've received a lot of blessings already -- a couple more would be heavenly.

Update: Just got published on Buffalo Rising with my one word for Buffalo (which happens to be pheNOMenal).

Prayer #184: Culmination

More could be said. More could be tweaked. More could be sliced and diced and reimagined in infinite arrays. But eventually, your vision must toddle forth on its own two legs. You have to trust what guided it to this point. You need to believe in your own ability and stand by what you sought to create.

God, grant us the right kind of the pride -- satisfied, elated, self-respecting. Work well done is work worth celebrating. Help us celebrate it now.

Amen.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

La Sagrada Familia: Conviction set in concrete


La Sagrada Familia. That's all I have to say. I've been inside a lot of churches in my day, toured many magnificent cathedrals, but never, ever, have I been in a place so full of reverence and faith and exuberance that it moved me to tears and helped me reflect even among throngs of tourists.


Thank you for your vision, Gaudi. Thank you for connecting humanity, nature, and divinity in such a thoughtful and compassionate scale. The vivid colors, the nurturing curves, the symbology and storytelling in every nook -- you were Catholic and catholic simultaneously. You made me feel what I far too often only think about. I wish you yourself could come back and see it. Would it please you as it did me?

Part of the power of the Sagrada experience was the realization that I was standing in a cathedral in progress. All the ones I've ever toured (except for the National Cathedral here in DC) are ancient and settled affairs. But Sagrada is surrounded by cranes and scaffolding. The inside was only completed and consecrated by Pope Benedict last year. Estimated total completion isn't until 2020-2040. ("Between now and eventually.")


Consider the following: Even with all our modern technologies and capabilities it's still taking us over 150 years to build this temple of God. That staggers me. And I was a part of that flow of time, at least for an afternoon. Someday, I may travel back with my children or grandchildren and say, "I was here when this fully wasn't." What a testament to endurance it is -- what a testament to vision.

Along those lines, I was also blown away by the scope and intimacy of Gaudi's plans. Every inch is accounted for. He brought to bear all his skills of architecture, engineering, sculpture, masonry, coppersmithing, woodworking, storytelling, and more. He laid out meticulous plans, knowing he would not live to see the cathedral to completion. He trusted others to carry them out. I wonder if it made him sad to miss it, or comforted knowing it would live beyond him, or maybe a bit of both.


The museum panels later told me that Gaudi was a "devout" believer. He certainly believed in the project, and it shows. The entire building breathes around you. It moves with the earth. Despite its vastness, it doesn't dwarf you, but elevates you. A half-hearted person could not have achieved this miracle. Sagrada is conviction set in concrete.

In the hecticness of the past week, I find my mind wandering back to the sanctuary. The tourists and pilgrims fade at the periphery into quiet wraiths. My eyes linger on the incomplete stained glass. The crescendo of the Lord's Prayer bounces off the curves. I sit in the pew and watch the sunlight chart its course through dusk. It's just as Gaudi designed it, so that neither too much dark or too much light would render the worshiper blind.


As I wandered through it today, it finally came to me: Gaudi built this temple for rejoicing. It metes no punishment. It wags no fingers. It doesn't seek to smother with grandeur. It's there to guide, and instruct, and above all exclaim. The Sagrada was built with its palms open and its eyes up. It can't stop smiling. No wonder I felt overjoyed in the moment and continue to feel it today, even an ocean away.

But enough of this for now. It's time to sleep, where I can dream of pillars that resemble trees, a choir loft that holds1,000 singers, and a church that was built as a prayer.


Prayer #183: Scaffold

My sanctuary is incomplete. I see chinks of sunlight where the ladders meet rails and shadows from the hefty cranes looming overhead.

I thought I had a plan when I started building. The more I construct, however, the fuzzier my blueprints become. Watchful statues ask tough questions. Higher towers bring deeper thought.

But strangely, I'm not worried. There is no rush, just unrealistic expectations. I will one day arrive at the altar, the pillars will rise piece by piece, and as long as I'm striving for beauty, I can't see how the result could be anything less than holy.

The unstained windows wink; they see what's coming.

Amen.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Jet-lagging behind ...

Photo by paloetic

Last week I gaped at Las Meninas at the Prado in Madrid, wept with joy at Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and imbibed enough cafe con leche to keep me awake until 2012. I will write about it for you, too -- but not today. Not while jet lag is getting the best of me, or work projects demand my attention, or the sheer number of upcoming tasks and trips and obligations dulls me to a nub.

Seems to be a theme lately, doesn't it? All the worrying and fretting. It would probably do me a heap of good to mull over these words from church this past Sunday:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4: 8-9)

So I'll think of Velazquez's art and Gaudi's devotion and the calm of a sidewalk cafe instead. I'll look forward to deep sleeps, finished projects, and a break in the schedule. I'll see beyond how harried I feel and praise instead the steadfast support and ready humor of all the people in my life. I will strive to be patient. I will aim for peace.

Prayer #182: Serenity Now (A Riff)

God, give me the strength to pick up my feet and the energy to prop up my lids. Help me move toward what I cannot see, see what I cannot move, and recognize the difference.

Amen.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Is romance dying?

Note: Just wanted to say thank you again to everyone who participated on and offline in last week's discussion about atheism, non-theism, and, well, theism. That was a pretty intense discussion, and you all gave me much food for thought. While I'm mulling it all over (and preparing for next week's vacation to Spain!), I hope you enjoy this lighter post.

Today's burning question: Is old-school romance dying out?

Exhibit A (from my Buffalo Unscripted trip for work):



Exhibit B (also from Buffalo Unscripted):



I edited Peter's clip, interviewed the Deputats, put it all up on our project blog, and found myself wondering ... does this type of romance still exist? Do grand train stations inspire people to instant passion? Does the meet cute occur with the same regularity it once seemed to? Are kisses -- happy, sudden, heartfelt kisses -- enough?

I ask because I don't really hear my peers share stories like Peter and the Deputats (band name!) do above. To be sure, I have plenty of friends in happy, healthy, satisfying long-term relationships. But I can't remember anyone sharing one defining story about how they met that had the same sweep of excitement and that curious mix of simplicity and maturity.

Now, the difference could be generational. My grandparents' peers had more defined social standards about what was acceptable or advisable. They tended to live in tighter, more close-knit communities where they could draw on their social connections to meet people in a more spontaneous way (compared to the rigors of online dating). Perhaps this is the misconception of any younger generation, but to me, their whole way of being felt more innocent -- not naive, not sheltered, simply innocent. They seemed more open to the possibility of romance, more expectant of it, and maybe that was enough to call it into being.

The difference could also be age. Maybe the passage of time -- and particularly, time spent together -- erases the reticence or pleasant embarrassment a couple might feel about their origin story. Memory softens the hard edges and the spectrum ends remain, making those happy exciting moments even more vibrant. Or maybe, as we age, we inadvertently revise the story, so it becomes an appealing narrative that is true, but not entirely factual.

If the first scenario is true, then yes, romance is literally dying out along with the Greatest Generation. Our world has changed enough in the intervening years that these stories will likely become fewer and farther between. (See: But what will become of the love letter?)

But if the second scenario is true, then we and upcoming generations have a chance. We'll take our vitamins and work out regularly, and hopefully earn ourselves enough time on Earth that one day we can stand in front of a young twenty-something somewhere and sharing our own happy origins. At that point, it will probably be a point of pride.

Or there could be a third scenario -- a variable definition of romance. Maybe, when all is said and done, romance is what you perceive it to be in your own time, your own mind, and your own ways. I'm sure there are some folks reading this post who don't think the videos above are endearing. (In which case I might argue you have no heart, but that would be judgmental, wouldn't it?) But those same people still express love and connection in their own way, and for them, that is romance.

So I guess I can't answer my own question today. I need to give it some time and space. Maybe some more thought. Or forget it entirely and just enjoy the love, affection, and laughter as they come.

Prayer #181: Meet Cute

God, what's our meet cute story? Did we meet on the schoolyard, trip over each other in the grocery store, see each other across the aisle in church? I can't really remember because it seems You've always been there.

We don't always have a lot of fireworks, do we, God? We sometimes talk. We sometimes fight. But mostly we just spend time together, like an old married couple. (Except You don't do the dishes, but we'll let that slide since, you know, you're God.)

Mostly, I feel You there. I want You there. And that is enough.

Amen.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

How I responded to an atheist I love

Photo by Jezlyn26.

I'm a person of faith. A person with faith. Imperfect faith, variable faith, doubtful faith, but still faith in a Higher Power. What, then, do I say to someone very near and dear to me who tells me he is atheist?

Well, I'll tell you. Because this happened to me just a couple weeks ago, so it's fresh in my mind.

Someone (whom we'll call Guy) told me his belief at the start of a car ride. He opened up the conversation as if he were coming clean. "I want to have faith, Julia," he said. "I really do. But I have to be honest and say I don't."

At first I was taken aback. I knew Guy wasn't following any religious doctrine, but I never stopped to think that might mean total lack of belief in any deity.

Then I felt naive, bordering on narrow-minded. Why did I assume Guy believed in God? Because he was a good person? Because he expressed morals and values similar to mine? Did his not believing in God make him any less a kind or worthy person? Did it prevent me from seeing him as a child of God?

And then I felt upset. Really upset. Heart-on-the-floor-mat kind of upset. But I couldn't cry because we were in the car together having this talk, and I didn't want to dissuade him from sharing his thoughts. I wanted to hear what he had to say, which turned out to be many thoughtful, well-researched, well-reasoned things. Guy had not come at this decision quickly or lightly. He had examined all sides and drawn a conclusion. I couldn't ask more from anyone of any belief system.

We went back and forth on various tenets. To be clear, I wasn't trying to convince him of anything. I believe God works within people individually, and their spiritual journeys are theirs alone. (Plus I'm a terrible debater and fold like a pile of laundry.)

Instead, we talked about the constructs of the atheist vs. theist debate. He said he doesn't understand why the burden of proof is on the atheists. I said believers and non-believers alike have a faulty premise -- that trying to wrap scientific and academic structures around something as intangible, amorphous, and stubbornly unscientific as faith can't help but lead to circular arguments and insufficient evidence.

Then we talked about the meaning of life without ever really using that term. He said he's in awe of the earth and the wondrous complexity of human existence without needing a Creator behind them. I said that mortality is a huge challenge for me -- downright terrifying at times -- and the idea of an afterlife brings me a measure of peace.

Then came my turn to come clean.

"Guy," I said, "I have to be honest too. I believe because I want to."

"I appreciate that," he said. "I wish more people would admit it."

So why was I ready to burst into tears then, and for the next 24 hours, and even now writing this post?
  • Because I've struggled with suffering and meaning and death in tearful spades this past year, and those are the waves that rock my little boat hardest.
  • Because Guy made me realize (admit?) how much I want people I love to share my beliefs. Why, I'm not sure. I think because for all the struggle that believing entails, it ultimately brings me joy, and I want others to have that too.
  • Because I've never been able to conceive of nothingness without fear creeping in.
  • Because thinking about if people can still end up in a heaven they never believed in makes my head hurt.
  • And because of lots of other big, daunting, mysterious, sentimental, melancholy, confused reasons I can't articulate right now. 
My response to the atheist I love may not seem enough to those of you with greater faith than I. Sorry about that. I could answer only from my heart, and it did the best it could.

Prayer #180: Suspension of Disbelief

Perhaps there's nothing in the dark to fear.

Perhaps there's nothing in the dark at all.

Still, I prefer a glimmer, if only along the path.

So for that, give me a faith that flickers but never quite goes out.

Amen.

Monday, September 05, 2011

But what will become of the love letter?

Photo by Houbazure

The love letters sit in my memory box in rough chronological order. Some are typed. Most are handwritten. They have doodles, stickers, and scratched-out mistakes. I remember pulling them from the mailbox and running upstairs to read them so I could hear the person who wrote them as if he were in the room. It was romantic. Personal. Ageless. And though the love is past, the letters keep it alive, suspended in time.

However, this may not be the case for much longer. Two things have recently combined to make me reevaluate the state of the love letter – or any letter, for the matter. The first is the depressing news about the USPS budget gap and post office closures. Turns out that my ardent insistence on mailing birthday cards, hello notes, and the monthly rent check hasn’t been enough to keep our postal system afloat. Not like it could have made a difference. Snail mail is battling every online social platform under the sun, trying to fight instant flame with a slow burn. Can it even compete?

The other item is the book What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell. These two 20th century authors and contemporaries enjoyed 50+ years of long-distance friendship, largely expressed through their energetic, funny, and loving letters. You read these words, never intended for publication, and you get their unvarnished personalities. As I work my way through the decades, I wonder, would they have put this much energy into emails?

Take these ponderings together, and I’m left with a big question: What ultimately defines the quality of correspondence – the medium, or the individuals? If we don’t have the attention spans, unlimited characters, or cultural expectations that permit or encourage meditative communication like letters, is it worth fighting to preserve them? Or are we better off letting our communications evolve to match the available technology?

I think I stand at the tipping point. I’m a Millennial who champions the sanctity of the handwritten note. I want the postal equivalent of the slow-food movement – a small but determined group of people who don’t want life to assume warp speed, but instead balance out society’s insistence on instantaneousness with slower, more thoughtful conversations.

If nothing else, consider this: I still have those love letters. Plus my favorite birthday and Christmas cards. And lots of other notes, jokes, and words of encouragement people have mailed me over the years. I also have these sorts of things saved in various email folders, but they rarely approach the same level of care and personality I consistently find in what’s been mailed to me.

I find an irrepressible power in pulling out these letters and opening the envelopes anew. I daydream about passing them down through the generations. I wonder if one day I’ll become famous, and then my biographers will thank their lucky stars they have all this extant correspondence to shed light into what I hoped for and believed.

Letters have a character count not of the 140 variety. I can’t bear the thought of losing that. Can you?

Prayer #179: Postscript

P.S. God – before I mail this out, just wanted to add that I think of You often. Thanks for answering (most of) my questions. Even though Your responses sometimes take a couple letters and a few days weeks years to get here, I still appreciate them. Good to know someone out there is thinking of me, too.

Ok, that’s it. 'Til next time!

Amen.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Despite what Coldplay says, God gave me neither style nor grace

Photo by trevorappleton.
Of course it had to be someone else's photo,
because a) I rarely do mountains, and
b) if I'd taken a picture I would have fallen off the cliff.


I beg to differ with Coldplay: God gave me neither style nor grace.

Otherwise, why then, when I was slated to be in the tap routine for a show, would the choreographers have politely and discreetly cut the number "needed" in half? (I wasn't needed.)

Why then, when I was using on the squat machine at the gym this weekend, would another gym-goer say to me, "Not quite awake yet, are we?" (I was in the middle of a set.)

Why then, when I caught my flip-flop on the slightest raised inch of sidewalk and landed hard on the other foot on my way home from work, would a homeless man call out to me to be careful? (I walk the same route every day.)

I'm really, really hoping -- with all fingers crossed, except with my luck, I'll cut off circulation and lose a pinky -- that this lack of grace will transform to some greater purpose. That I'll have the sort of opportunities only abject awkwardness can reveal, like a lost diamond ring on the sidewalk right before cheek meets pavement.

I'm thinking this, actually:

Photo by shawnzlea.


This better be it. Otherwise, I'm taking out extra insurance.

Prayer #178: Stumblin' Fool

If I'm going to trip over anything, Lord, can You make it the curb and not my words?

I keep stumbling across the same arguments, the same worries, the same aggravations, the same fears. If there's a high expectation or misplaced assumption around, I guarantee I will stub my toe on it.

You'd think I'd learn. But no. I rush in where angels know better than to tread and consequently fall flat on my all-too-mortal face.

Help me clear the path, Lord. Or at least remove it of injurious debris for the time being. That way I can start making progress down the road, with at least some strength -- and some limbs -- intact.

Amen.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Forget the blank page -- this is a writer's worst enemy

Photo by mpclemens

I sat down in the coffee shop yesterday, laptop at hand, with one goal: write a new picture book manuscript in two hours.

The cursor blinked. I knew exactly what I wanted to say. I could read every acceptance letter from publishers, see every illustration in my head, hear every parent reading it aloud at bedtime to spotless, expectant little faces.

So I clickety-clacked my heart out, undaunted by the white page, unwavering in my self-belief. I had no reason to hesitate. I knew this was pure gold.

Until I read what I'd written.

And that's when I realized: Blank pages are not the enemies writers like to make them out to be. First drafts are.

Blank pages are the easy part. They're shining beacons of potential and hope. You haven't offended anyone with bad grammar or struggled to fill a plot hole or dyed the whole thing red with editorial ink. Blank pages hold only your best intentions.

First drafts, however, reveal just how far you are from your initial, glorious vision. Instead, all your imperfections have emerged in harsh sunlight with bad hangovers. Characters trip over each other and lose their voices. Chapters drag like mummy feet. You're pretentious on one page, trite on another. And for the love of God, do not. Put in. That EPILOGUE.

Coming up short is scary. Whaddya mean, I wasn't perfect out of the gate? you think. It shakes your confidence. To paraphrase Lincoln (a fine writer who I'm hoping had a ton of first drafts), better the page remain blank and be thought perfect than to fill it up and inject all doubt.

So where does leave us, besides crying in the corner and taking to drink? As I see it, we have two options for our work:

1) Put on blinders. Insist on your consummate brilliance. Consider your job done.

2) Admit your weaknesses. Admit your strengths. Keep working.

Hmm. Sounds a bit like life, dunnit? How the most productive route usually isn't the easiest? Or fastest? Or cleanest?

I sat reading that picture book draft and watched my happy daydreams evaporate like steam from the espresso machine. But don't get all depressed on my account. The visions, the goals, the ambitions -- they're all cyclical. I didn't diminish or abandon them. I just set them alongside the first draft to keep a watchful eye on my progress.

The good news is, the most evil part is over. I put real words on paper. Now I have something to work with. Something to improve upon. Something even bigger to earn.

Prayer #177: Work in Progress

God of sparks and daydreams and notebook doodles --

Take what is passable and elevate it.
Take what is useable and sculpt it.
Take what is good and burnish it.

Make me superlative, just as You envisioned.

Amen.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

What do you believe in the light?



Many thoughts and ideas jockeying for position this week. Among them:

* What does heartburn feel like?
* What do you say to people who don't believe in God?
* When do tennis lessons start?
* How do you get a friend to seek counseling help?
* What's the difference in feeling between a sinus headache, allergies, and a brain tumor?
* What if my parents die in a freak accident while traveling abroad?
* Am I ready to have kids?
* Is throwing leftover apple pie in the trash an act of courage or stupidity?
* Where do we really go when we die?
* Did I accidentally inhale a piece of pasta last week?
* Am I a writer poser?
* Have I turned into a hypochondriac?
* What do dreams about Frasier characters mean?

It's enough to keep you awake. Or distracted. Or worried. Or all of the above. Which I am.

So for the space of one blog post, I'm going to put these thoughts and ruminate on these lyrics --
[H]old on to what you believe in the light
When the darkness has robbed you of all your sight

Because somewhere between healthy insight and harmful obsessing, I took a wrong turn and ended up in pitch-black Agitaville (sans heartburn medication). Time to head back toward the light -- even if it doesn't come into view for a bit.

Prayer #176: Worries and Warts

How do you know when your logic has come full circular? When you're still at war, not peace? When you missed the exit for arrival at your conclusion?

I for one don't know. If I did, I wouldn't have turned my poor brain into a worry stone.

God of perspective, help my puny mind rest from wrestling with mystery. Direct it instead on solving the solvable.

Then rub off the soot that clouds the once-clear glass on my lantern. Shine it instead on a path worth following.

In short, keep me from worrying myself so smooth I slip away for good.

Amen.

Monday, August 08, 2011

The s-word that really turns me on

I just got back from a much-needed vacation with my fella, and I had a whole lotta something that makes me feel giddy. Alive. Weak in the knees.

What to know what it was?

It was SILENCE.

I dig silence. I crave it. I wallow in it. Be it library silence, beach silence, or monk-like silence, count me in.

But silence, as you know, is difficult to achieve. We're surrounded by din -- train screeches and cell phone conversations and coworker chatter. Even moments of supposed 'quiet' usually have some sort of hum in the background.

It's not just audible noise, either. Our visual world (especially online) is clutter incarnate. What popped up? What does that update say? Who just @ replied me?

Still, I strive to make a silent pocket each day, an unplugged moment where I'm sitting in my thoughts and tuning out the beeps and whirrs. And it's much easier on vacation when I'm sitting alone on a beach with only waves as a soundtrack, as I was last week.

Turns out this silence has a funny effect -- it makes me a better listener. So says sound expert Julian Treasure in this illuminating TED talk about "re-tuning your ears for better conscious listening." Watch the short video here:



So yeah. Silence turns me on (or is it off?). It helps me hear my boyfriend without the crackle of bad phone connections. It helps me absorb the sea air and the movement of tides. It helps me acknowledge the whispers in my own heart.

Silence, it turns out, speaks volumes.

Prayer #175: Silence Speaks Loudest

Amid cackles and crackles and reverb and pings
Couched in echoes and static and racket and rings
Next to babble and bellows and ruckus and dings

I sit still to listen ... and learn my soul sings.

For I could not hear it above all the noise --
Could not heed the sorrows, could not share the joys.

But now I'm aware (now that I've begun)
That souls tend to whisper at the top of their lungs.

So beyond all the clatter and clamor and fuss
Over the fanfare and shouting and muss
My soul quiets all with a "shhh" and a sigh --
God's voice not on mute, but instead amplified.

Amen.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Why Buffalo is your future, no matter where you live

Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo. from PreservationNation on Vimeo.

"Oh, you're interviewing for Buffalo Unscripted?" said the Five Points Bakery owner to the customer. "Then you get a free loaf of bread!"

"Really?" she said.

"Really," he answered. "We posted it on our Facebook wall. Everyone who participates get a free loaf of fresh cinnamon raisin bread. Because we love this project and want everyone to come."

True story. Happened when I was filming in Buffalo (the reason I didn't post anything new for three weeks). It captures why I have fallen truly/madly/deeply in Buffalove. Not because I'm a carb addict, but because I'm a community addict. And Buffalo is my new drug.

I thought I was crazy when we ended filming and experienced sudden, acute separation anxiety from a city where I'd spent only 11 days. What about this old Rust Belt town was calling me home?

I wouldn't have put my finger on it if I hadn't just finished reading The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks. (Cliff notes TED talk here, but really, this is a fantastic read and you should get the whole book.)

Drawing on the wide field of brain science, Brooks explores how our unconscious impacts all aspects of our life, from academics to politics to neighborhoods. At one point, he talks about the "shallow view" society shaped by a 20th century emphasis on material development that ultimately broke down the "social and emotional development that underpins it."

Other forces were at work too:
  • The cultural revolution broke down old habits and traditional family structures.
  • The economic revolution replaced downtowns with sprawl.
  • The information revolution replaced face-to-face community organizations and instead sent people alone in smaller, more self-selecting, more identical communities. (As Brooks puts it, "like found like.")
All these combined to dissolve the "webs of relationship" that gave society a deeper, richer social fabric. And with those webs disintegrated, people's social capital diminished and they were left rootless.

But not in Buffalo.

As interviewee after interviewee for our project pointed out, Buffalo's economic hardships in the latter part of the 20th century saved the elements of its society that support its revival today. Case in point:
  • They never knocked down their old buildings or houses to build new ones.
  • They kept their park system largely intact.
  • They came to rely on grassroots organizing to achieve community-centric goals.
  • They made a point of knowing and relying on their neighbors.
The result: Buffalo greets the 21st century with community solidarity, a can-do attitude, a reasonable cost-of-living, and a strong sense of place.

Now, it's not all rainbow-farting unicorns. The metro area is still in search of a new post-manufacturing economy. Their medical corridor holds promise, as do the energy and arts sectors, but none have emerged as the winning ticket just yet.

That said, the city has a lot going for it, not the least of which is its depth of community. And that's precisely what had me checking real estate listings by the end of the week. Something deep in my unconscious suddenly realized it was tired of transience, of living in a place with a shifting, nondescript point of view. And it got really, really excited about the idea of supporting local artists. Of joining a block club. Of knowing my mailman's name.

In my opinion, Buffalo shows us how we can reinstate the social systems that hold us together and meld them with the march of progress. When Buffalonians look at their city, they don't see the Rust Belt/snow-encased stereotype the rest of the country pokes fun at. They see neighbors working together. They see progress and reinvention. And they see it all all happening right now. Not in some distant, amorphous future, but in real time, as we speak.

Buffalo is a city well under way. We need to keep an eye on it. Better yet, we should participate in it, whether there or in our own communities. As native Meg Baco commented to me before, "Remember, my one word for Buffalo is POSSIBLE. Anyone can be a Buffalonian, no matter where they are."

It's time to discard the shallow view. It's time to be the Buffalo.

Note: This week's prayer is dedicated to all the generous, helpful, hopeful people we've met thus far who make our Buffalo Unscripted project -- and their hometown -- such a joy to be a part of.

Prayer #174: Rooted

I have no leaves, no branches, no bark or stem or petal. But I have roots that go deep, back to some primordial cave where individualism was not yet invented and connectedness was king.

My roots start at the spot in my chest that leaps when I near home. They snake through my legs and grip the soil in places that make my heart sing. They radiate out -- stealthy, subtle sentinels -- in constant search for others' cords to earth. For we are designed to be entwined.

Source of all things solid and growing, help my roots go deeper. Tangle them in knots and twists so I am that much stronger. Show me what it means to truly stand with others.

Amen.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

OMG life. (Or, the post in which Julia decides she wants a black Baptist funeral.)


There's a whole lotta life going on right now, friends, and I'm doing my best to testify.

Last Monday, my coworker Charisse passed away unexpectedly. She was only 32. I got the call from my colleague Priya as I was checking out of a hotel in Buffalo, NY. I spent the next 8 hours in the car sniffling, cursing, and contemplating my own mortality.

I can't claim a long and deep friendship with Charisse. We became friendlier over the last year through our shared love of faith and writing. Charisse was a modern patron of the arts, and she practiced it daily. She was a particular champion of my blog, for which I'll always be grateful, and she connected me with other writers both within and outside our organization.

This connection, as small as it seems compared to her other relationships, brings this post from a different place in my heart. Her untimely death strikes a spiritual chord for me that other recent passings have not. It makes me think about what defines a life well-lived, what 'leaving a legacy' really means, and what we are meant to accomplish on earth.

This morning I and about 8 bajillion other people gathered to celebrate Charisse's life. And because hers was a black Baptist congregation, it really WAS a celebration, not a euphemistic whitewashing of a Very Sad Event. Singing, dancing, praising, shouting, fans, hats -- the service had it all. Even the name spoke hope: this was not a funeral, but a homegoing.

The testimonials from her friends and family confirmed what I'd suspected all week: that Charisse may have died prematurely, but she had lived at the height of her powers. She lived with knowledge of purpose. She lived at the ready.

"Be persistent in pursuing your miracle," Rev. Velvet Abram said from the pulpit today. Well, Charisse was. So when her moment came, she accomplished something most people only dream of: she left behind little to remedy and little to regret. That is a remarkable achievement at any age, and pretty damn close to a miracle.

I'm not ashamed to admit I burned through an entire pack of Kleenex during the two-hour service. I'm also not ashamed to admit that I am very, very white and was clapping on the wrong beat to half the songs.

I am a little ashamed to admit, however, that my mourning is ultimately selfish. I mourn for what another 40, 50, 60 years of life for Charisse would have given the rest of us -- more conversations, more paintings, more poetry, more love.

But I'm not mourning Charisse as she was. For she was what God is always asking us to be -- her full, authentic, and irrepressible self.

That's how to live a life, friends.

[Want to learn more about Charisse? Read these stellar reflections from her fellow writers and friends: Amy Moffitt's "Goodbye, beautiful girl" and Priya Chhaya's "My Heart is Aching."]

Prayer #173: Speak Life

Speak life.

You can sing it or shout it or whisper it -- whatever your chords are built for.

But speak it nonetheless. Give it full voice. Such is your duty, your mandate, and your privilege.

For to remain silent is to disappear, trace no mark, leave no ripple.

But to speak ...

Well, that is to write your name in the stars.

Amen.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The parable of the email

No Email Messages

The woman went to her cubicle to send an email to her loved one.

The first email she sent was rushed and short. It was filled with typos and emoticons. The receiver did not know what to make of it, and so did not respond.

Dismayed at not hearing from her loved one, the woman sent a second email. This one was overthought. It was filled with words that did not match her feelings. The receiver misunderstood the email, and sent back a short and unsatisfactory response.

Now she decided to send a third email. She sat down and examined her heart, and typed its truth on the screen. She sent it with the knowledge it was honest. And the receiver finally grasped her message, and responded in kind.


---

Why don’t we speak in parables anymore?

Wine and seeds. Vines and sheep. Coins and sons. All common elements of a past world, and all used to illustrate bigger, more mysterious concepts.

Yet we don’t teach each other in such direct ways today. Are our systems too complicated? Are our professions too erudite? Or are we of the 21st century simply above them -- beyond mystery and beyond questions?

I crave a parable for our times. I want a crucial truth about our mysterious God broken down into something that’s a little more than metaphor, and told to me in a sing-song voice that lulls me into understanding.

I don’t care if it’s about technology or pop culture or politics. Just make it real. Make it relevant. Make it understood.

Prayer #172: Parable

God of yarns, tell me a story.

Give me a hero and a villain. Outline the conflict, lay out the quest. Lead me through three acts. Grant a happy ending.

For the world is an obstinate place that refuses corralling into a single thread, and the enormity and breadth of its subplots can overwhelm even the most dedicated reader.

Show me the page that matters most in this moment. Give me a hint how this chapter could end.

Amen.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Independence Day: The result of hope, conviction, and abject terror

Exhibit A: Hope & Conviction



Exhibit B: Abject Terror



What does it take to go against the world you've known up to this point? What does it take to commit your signature in black ink to a treasonous document? What does it take to risk your life on a principle and belief?

Every year I wake up on the 4th of July with these questions on my mind, and then I go watch fireworks and eat hot dogs and forget them until the next year. This Independence Day, however, I found myself remembering John Adams (NERD ALERT!), a longtime crush of IMS for his sincere passion and gruff humanity.

Here are several reasons Adams' conviction rings true to me even after the muffling of 200-odd years:
  • He appreciates the full scope and magnitude of this decision. It's not a lark, but a real, serious endeavor. And Adams knows the repercussions aren't his alone to bear, but his children's as well.
  • He recognizes the conflict will cost dearly in human lives and suffering. He is not blinded by glory or promise.
  • He acknowledges his opponents, particularly John Dickinson of Pennsylvania. Adams knows his personal view is not universal, and he does not force it on others in the room.
  • Nor does he sanitize or temper his belief to satisfy popular opinion. Instead, Adams stands in a room of his peers and says out loud, "All that I have, all that I am, and all that I hope in this life I am now ready to stake upon it. While I live, let me have a country -- a free country."
Which begs the question ... On what am I ready to stake all I have, all I am, and all I hope for?

Eww. Itchy. If I have no immediate answer, does that mean I have no convictions? And even if I do answer in the relative anonymity of a blog post, would I have the courage to back it up when the army was at my door?

Either way, I have the liberty to even ask myself this question on my terms and answer with my beliefs because I live in a country secured by others' convictions, others' fears, and others' hopes. That's a powerful legacy, and I feel called to contribute to it, even if I'm not yet sure how.

Here again I look to Adams' words for support: "Where he foresees apocalypse, I see hope." I want to say this of myself -- which led to this prayer.

Prayer #171: Fear of Conviction

God who suffers no doubt, except at our hands:

Do we develop convictions to bulwark against our fears? Or do our fears cement convictions?

Do our future hopes give us purpose for the present? Or do present beliefs beget self-fulfilling prophecies?

Is it even worthwhile to question which chicken leads to what egg, or which virtuous or vicious cycle is in play?

Because whether we start from fear, or from hope, or from conviction, we soon discover the three are inextricable -- all bedrock layers that eventually form our principles.

Foment this perpetual rebellion in our cores, and let the values that best serve You rise to guide us.

Amen.