Sunday, December 22, 2013

Festivals of light

Swallow the light. Photo by Gadjo Cardenas Sevilla, Flickr

I start the spring in lanterns red
That flit and float on by.
Bold fireworks burst overhead –
A Chinese New Year sky.

I beam from mosques and minarets
Where stars and crescents dawn.
Your fast can break when I am set
Each day of Ramadan.

I pool in diyas – small clay pots
That shine in homes scrubbed clean.
They welcome souls and happy thoughts
That on Diwali gleam.

I spark menorahs – flames of eight
The Maccabees once saw.
This miracle we celebrate
At every Hanukkah.

I wind through branches evergreen
To soften winter’s gloom.
My twinkling presence always means
That Christmas will come soon.

No matter where on Earth I glow,
One hope makes me burn bright:
That joy and peace is ours to know
With just a little light!


Prayer #266: Everywhere, Light

We've crossed the threshold once again, when sapphire night creeps after wan sun and cuts it off mid-gulp. But from this moment on, the day will fight back. Stand taller. Regain its ground.

All of us around the world, in our own times and ways, fight this battle. And we all choose the same weapon: light. Flickering, sputtering, winking, burning light. Pure in its creation. Honest in its stance. Holy in the way it reveals our path.

Amen.

---

Merry Christmas from Italian Mother Syndrome! May the blessings and joy of this season be yours, now and throughout the year.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The break-up sonnet

Fixable. With the right key. Photo by frankh, Flickr

THE BREAK-UP

You are not right for me. So there. It’s said.
I could keep up charades, but we both know
The longer that I try to force a glow,
The closer we’ll both be to being dead —
Which means less time (I say with creeping dread)
For each of us to wander high and low
And — finding Cupid — jump him for his bow
To arrow whom we’re meant to love instead.

But then I peer into the yawning hole
Where plus-ones disappear — negated, lost —
And all my heart’s investments sink to naught:
No ring, no home, no child, no mated soul.
I’m tempted thus to disregard the cost
Of speaking less than truth, even if fraught.


Prayer #265: For Anyone Who's Ever Broken Up With Someone Else

To my God
who speaks to me with a still, small voice
who helps me hold up my end of the bargain
who governs all love, be it found, lost, or yet unknown --

I ask You
to forgive me for hurting another person
to hug me tight as I relive every prior break-up through the lens of the latest
to help me resist the temptation to seek comfort from the one other person I know is grieving the same loss I am
to give me the courage to keep seeking

to keep hoping
to keep trusting
to keep loving

to pray the prayer I feel selfish praying
but is not selfish at all
because You have placed it in my heart.

Amen.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Reread what your life has written

Reread. Photo by EssG, Flickr
"If we could sell our experiences for what they cost us we'd be millionaires." -- Abigail Van Buren

The act of handwriting can be a form of kinesthetic reinforcement. What you write down etches on your mind. But even if you wrote your hand clean off, it wouldn't be enough to cement all the lessons, reminders, and warnings life piles on before bed each evening. So we capture what we can, go to sleep, and hope for the best.

Enter, then, revisiting. Rereading, if you will, be it literal notes or records, or rewatching a memory through a shadow box of time and new experiences. In both cases, your once-lived life plays out within a handmade diorama -- a construction paper construct that represents its original, vivid source.

It seems depressing to say it that way -- construction paper, after all, is prone to tears, fading, and overall disintegration -- but I'm making the point that we don't have exact moments again. Ever. The experience is immediate, then past. A match struck, where the brilliant burst first catches, burns a bit, then dwindles, spent. The key is to save the match and write with the char: Here's what I saw in the light.

Quote yourself. Photo by Purple Penning, Flickr

Case in point: Italian Mother Syndrome. I've been blogging here for years, and I've never intended it to be a confessional journal. For me, these posts are my char -- the distillation of burning moments that recast me in a new light.

Every so often, I scroll through previous posts to see what I've talked about. Reflecting via timestamp has reminded me, at various points, that grief is a gift, that joy can be terrifying, that the love of life is growing for me, that aging is a blessing and a curse, and that yes, I will die.

However, what's most telling is how I wrote about these topics. As I reread them, I am back in that unique moment. I remember what line made me tear up or what picture I chose to make myself giggle. I remember what inspired me to write it and what I was moved to do next. And invariably I find a post that captures what I'm feeling or facing or fussing about now, in this moment, and I remember that I did learn this lesson once and clearly need to re-learn it.

What if I never re-read, then? Would I never re-learn? Or would I still re-learn, only without recognizing the "re" component? How long does it take to learn a lesson? How long should it take? Are there some that always switch disguises, Tony Mendez-like, clever and clandestine with their wisdom? Or are they hiding in plain sight with Groucho glasses and a beanie? Am I, in the end, the chump?

"A kind of miracle." Photo by quinn.anya, Flickr
A step-by-step instruction manual would be a lifesaver. Socrates famously said, "The unexamined life is not worth living," but he was too busy fighting the death penalty at that moment to go into more detail about when to examine vs. when to live. That's the delicate balance, isn't it? If I spent all my time re-reading old posts, I'd never write new ones. Yet if I never revisit original moments, I risk repeating epiphanies.

My solution: do a little bit of each as the spirit moves me. Look to learn to live. Live to learn to look.

Prayer #264: Bookmarked Wisdom

We start fairy tales with "once upon a time," even though we know few stories are new and time never happens just once. Still, we perpetuate the fiction; it's easier to accept truth wrapped in a bedtime yarn than to watch it thud, bald and broken, at your feet during your morning walk.

Your life has its own narrative, of which you are both writer and reader. Crack the spine. Scribble in the margin. Reread the dog ears. The book is yours to complete, and yours to revise.

Amen.

Monday, October 14, 2013

What happened when I stopped going to church

Turn the other way. Photo by James Ogley, Flickr.

This past summer, I didn't go to church for eight weeks. (Don't tell my goddaughter.) I had my reasons: my summer travel led to an irregular schedule, or I was often visiting people who don't attend church, or I didn't want to put on "real" clothes.

At first, in accordance with my Catholic upbringing, I felt guilt. I knew I could have made more of an effort -- timed flights differently, gotten up earlier, looked up Mass times at local parishes wherever I was.

But sometimes, I just didn't want to. It was rather pleasant, actually, not to be on a set schedule. Plus, I'd just spent a great deal of money to visit my loved ones wherever they were; I wanted to maximize my time with them.

Thus I justified my choices. Then I got complacent, especially about putting on pants. So I forgave myself the absences, and said to God, "I'll be back in the fall."

Now it's October, and indeed, I am back. But a funny thing happened on the way to the chapel: I gained perspective on why I ever wanted or followed a spiritual routine in the first place. Here's what I learned.

Stay and think awhile. Photo by Visual Storyteller, Flickr.

Create regular space for contemplation.

For years I've felt like an anomaly among my broader peer group for attending services at all, much less regularly. When I ask folks about it, they answer with some variation of, "Well, church/Mass/services/organized religion doesn't do it for me, so I don't go."

What I realized over the summer is that church-going does do it for me. The desire doesn't stem as much from rule-following or a sense of obligation as it does from a need for scheduled contemplative time. I lead a busy and distracted life. My praying is sporadic. But Mass -- and the routine of attending it -- carves out time for me to talk to God.

The Catholic Mass structure in particular speaks to my personal history, style of learning, and love of storytelling. Its more rote aspects free me to dwell on bigger theological or spiritual themes, such as my place in the world and what God is guiding me toward. As with a sonnet, the rigid format promotes creativity within. For me, it works.

Now, the operative part there is that it works for me. Any number of other spiritual practices could achieve the same effect in others, be it regular meditation, daily prayer, or a couple hours spent alone in nature. The point is to be consistent and mindful about it, as this Huffington Post article The Habits of Supremely Happy People points out (emphasis mine):
As Ellen L. Idler, Ph.D., writes in "The Psychological and Physical Benefits of Spiritual/Religious Practices,":
The experience of sacred time provides a time apart from the “profane time” that we live most of our lives in. A daily period of meditation, a weekly practice of lighting Sabbath candles, or attending worship services, or an annual retreat in an isolated, quiet place of solitude all of these are examples of setting time apart from the rush of our everyday lives. Periods of rest and respite from work and the demands of daily life serve to reduce stress, a fundamental cause of chronic diseases that is still the primary causes of death in Western society. Transcendent spiritual and religious experiences have a positive, healing, restorative effect, especially if they are “built in,” so to speak, to one’s daily, weekly, seasonal, and annual cycles of living.

Truants, together. Photo by pily pily, Flickr.

Ask for what you need, and be open to the results.

I'll be honest: Sometimes my lack of attendance this summer was sheer laziness. I was in no mood to make the extra effort.

Now I'll be honest-er: Sometimes I really did want to go, but I was afraid to offend or inconvenience the people I was traveling with -- or worse, I didn't want them to think I was a weird goody-two-shoes.

In this case, I not only undercut my own needs, but I also forestalled potential conversations and revelations. Had I demonstrated what I wanted at that moment, I would have given my traveling partners an opportunity to respond. Perhaps they would have poked fun of me. Perhaps they would have joined. Or perhaps they would simply ask why I go, and we would talk from there about faith in our lives.

No matter the response, I would have learned something new about myself and about them. Instead, I let fear and embarrassment stand in my way. Now I know for next time to stand by what’s important to me and see what emerges.

The easy path? Photo by Billtacular, Flickr.

Beware the easy path.

It’s ok not to go occasionally. Clearly, no bolt from the heavens has burnt me to a crisp for saying that, because I’m writing a blog post about it. But not going quickly turned into the easier path. And when I did recommit to attending, I felt weak, flabby, and out of practice. Plus, it was all the harder to get back into the habit.

This summer was the spiritual equivalent of going to the gym once a week for 30 minutes to sit in the sauna yet claiming that I'd exercised. Lesson: The absence of resistance rarely results in meaningful growth. It’s worth challenging myself to see what new levels I can attain.

I've been back at church for a month or so now, and it feels good. I have songs to sing, sermons to mull over, a community to participate in. Most important, I have at least one hour every week where my mind is focused on something bigger than myself. I'm not thinking about emails or writing goals or homework or work projects or dinner. I'm just thinking about God, the state of the world, and my immortal soul.

You know. Light stuff.

Prayer #263: Spiritual Truancy

Free will means I don't have to ask permission. Free will means I don’t have to provide reasons. So I won't. I'll come and go as I please. I'm a grown-ass adult. I dictate my time. My terms.

But of all the terms and time to dictate, why not spend a slice -- a sliver, really – on a relationship that is at once the easiest and hardest to maintain? Easy because my partner is already gaga for me (I’m told); hard because I cannot grasp the enormity of that unseen claim.

No pain, no gain, they say. But the longer it takes to see gains, the more pronounced pain can feel.

Still, I will try. Still, I will reach.

Amen.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Adventures in ekphrasis*

Mary at the Cathedral of St. Matthew, Washington, DC.


AD MARIAM

She is completed only when I kneel.
From the blue alcove she leans over me
Suspended by the grace of God (or maybe
Concrete nails), voluptuous in stone,
All wind-blown folds and curls.
                                                  She wants my hand.
She’s reaching for it, palms curving like mine,
The tender tension bending her fingers,
The right extended toward me, then the left
Directing to the tiled heaven at
Her back.
                  She’s ample. Fleshy. Skirt hiked up
Toward her strong thighs – an interrupted motion
On her way to wash, or plant, or touch.
One shoulder drops, exposed. She wears no bra;
Her breasts fall full, as subject to the march
Of time and mothering as mine.
                                                  Her eyes,
However: blank. The Lady has a soul,
Yet it dies out between her nose and brow.
Her figure teems with life, yet she presents
As blind.
                Are we meant not to bond with her?
Is she merely a conduit, a bridge
That rises on the hour, every hour,
To propel us sinful vehicles
Past her mantilla’d head into the wall
Where we might be squashed flat but, man,
The ride was worth it?
                                    I believe her more
Than infrastructure. She wants me. I, her.
And if I stand now, clear the kneeler, clamber
Up the stone, I know it will feel warm.


Prayer #262: Warmth in the Stone

Enrich me with each successive viewing. Suspend me in that space between "yes" and "fine," between when I choose to choose you and when I consign myself to the glorious calamity of being bound to earth.

I am no blind-faith fool. I see what sits before me; it is a thing and I will name it as such. Yet this thing has a reality beyond its form, and I will name that as well.

So engage me, the grubby supplicant with sore knees and wandering attention. Come down from the pedestal, coursing with life, and gather me up with disregard for propriety.

I began by kneeling to you. I evolved by contemplating you. Let me end by embracing you -- flesh around faith.

Amen.

---

* An ekphrastic poem is one that comments on another art form, such as painting, sculpture, or photography. I wrote the poem above as part of my current graduate school class. The prayer draws from my professor's contemplative response.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The dating contract

Monsters love, too. Photo by krisphan, flickr
I, the undersigned first party, agree to enter into an exclusive, mutually romantic relationship with you, the undersigned second party, based on the following provisions:

  • I will embrace conflict where necessary. I will not instigate it without cause, but nor will I avoid it to preserve an inaccurate version of lovers in paradise, for doing so may create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • I will give -- and receive -- wholeheartedly. As in with abandon, with your benefit in mind, with no expectation of tallying or repayment. I will let you be there for me, and I will not forestall the gifts you are eager to give.
  • I will be on my most natural behavior with you. Sometimes it will be my best; occasionally, my worst. In either case, I will strive not to hide it.
  • I will not always be in a good mood. But I will always strive to be good and also to recognize what else is good in my life.
  • I will bathe. Regularly.
  • I will devote time to getting to know your friends because they know who you've been over the course of your life and have helped mold you into the person I'm dating today. For this formative role, they deserve my attention and goodwill.
  • I will speak well of you to others. You deserve to have me as your #1 fan. If you've done something so egregious I need to complain, I promise that you'll be the first (and hopefully only) person to know.
  • Any complaining will cease at that variable but essential point when a body should either let the offending item go or remedy the situation. I will consider you an outlet for venting, but I will not turn you into an emotional outhouse where my toxic refuse festers in a hole I can't see the bottom of.
  • I will never tell you to feel -- or not to feel -- a certain way. Emotions roam without fences; our actions are the sheepdogs. I cannot and will not grant you 'permission' for what is essentially your heart.
  • I will be kind. If I am not, please forgive me -- my intentions are always to act with love.
  • I will forgive you. We each are guaranteed to stumble, so when the inevitable happens, I will rush to put a couch cushion beneath you rather than a pin cushion.
  • I will value and follow honesty.
  • If I tease you, it will come from affection -- not from fear, scorn, or insecurity.
  • I will hold you sacred. Not unassailable, not irreproachable, yet still priceless beyond my understanding. It is an honor to care for you in the course of this relationship, and I take the responsibility seriously.
  • I will not force words where there are none to say. I will just hug you, and listen.
  • I will try to be patient. Operative word being try.
  • I will not minimize the "little things," positive or negative, because little things become big things, and big things become hills you shout from or pits you fall into.
  • I will be as secure as possible in my own gifts and self-worth so I don't waste energy guarding them jealously and instead can lavish their fruits on you.
  • I will believe in your dreams.
  • I will be brave enough to call you on your shit. Because sometimes you will be a punk, and you should know when it happens. But what's more, you deserve a chance to learn about yourself and choose what you might want to examine or change. And I deserve the chance to learn if I can (and want to) live with your punkitude amid your finer traits.
  • I will follow dating's inverse Golden Rule: do unto myself what I would do unto you. As in, I will be as gracious and forgiving toward myself as I should be toward you. Because if we terminate this relationship, I will be left with me, and I'd like to still like me.
  • I will believe in something greater than myself -- God, the Universe, karma, nature, the common good -- and actively cultivate my relationship with that force. I will do it to gain perspective on my place in this world and within the march of time. It will show me what is worth serving, what is worth loving, and what is worth fighting for. It will make me humble and mindful in a proud, distracted age.
  • I will tell you when I miss you, when I want you, and when I love you -- without limit, without fear, without fail.

This agreement is subject to both parties' signatures, with the understanding that "I" means "we" and that none of it's easy, but we sure hope it's fun.

Signed:

___________________________
{First Party Signature}

___________________________
{Second Party Signature}


Prayer #261: The Best We Can

Lord,

Help the just-because flowers grow
and the love note ink flow
and the broken record show

that we're doing the best by each other we can
in earnest imitation
of You.

Amen.

Monday, July 22, 2013

On turning 30

Party like it's 1983!

Mm-hmh. Yes. This is it. My birthday. As of today, I am 30 years old.

This milestone can be a fraught one in our culture. Somewhere within the last generation, the age become a de facto benchmark for "having your life together." Are your finances in order? Have you finished your higher education? Have you figured out your career? Have you married, bought a home, borne children, started contributing to your 401k with high risk tolerance?

This approach is stressful. It's also inaccurate. Because to me, the real achievement of reaching 30 is that you lived through your 20s. And no matter how you chose to spend those years, I can bet you took away life lessons that will serve you well in the next decade and beyond.

So in the spirit of using milestones as an opportunity for reflection rather than measurement, I'd like to present to you my unordered list of what I learned in (and from) my 20s, and what I hope to learn in (and from) my 30s.

Ever the prodigy, I learned basic secretarial skills as early as age 2.

What I Learned In My 20s (In No Particular Order)
  • Trust your gut.
  • No really. Trust it.
  • Good relationshops buoy you.
  • Invest in the people who make you feel completely like yourself.
  • Be selfish with your time. It's ok to say no.
  • No one cares about your career. It's up to you to go and fight and work for what you want.
  • Live within your means.
  • You're on your own timeline. Whatever happens will happen when it happens, not a moment sooner or later.
  • Be balanced with travel and time at home.
  • Put down roots, then tend to them.
  • Challenge yourself regularly. Do what scares you, but don't feel obligated to continue it if it's not fulfilling you in the long run.
  • Leave yourself open to surprise.
  • Write regularly.
  • What others think of you is not as important as you once thought it to be.
  • Focus on the positive -- not to the point of naivete, but enough to remove your desire to complain and spew toxins into the air.
  • The house will never be clean.
  • Keep a guest book of your dinner parties.
  • Take pictures.
  • Forgive yourself first.
  • Walk forward, heart out.
  • Pay attention.
  • Be quiet. Make quiet.
  • There's no need for martyrdom.
  • You are in the midst of your life. Enjoy your freedom. Respect your free will. Imagine what can be.
  • Buy clothes that fit you well.
  • Take care of your body, mind, and soul in equal measure. Balance is crucial.
  • You grow into the things you want.

What is a birthday if not a time to take a good, hard look over the edge of the playpen?

Now for its corollary -- what I hope my life will instill in me over the next decade.

What I Want to Learn In My 30s (In No Particular Order)
  • Don't let others' moods dictate your own.
  • Stick to your guns.
  • Keep plants alive (and healthy).
  • Make everyone you meet feel like the most special person you've met to date.
  • Learn some kind of dance move.
  • Own your way through karaoke.
  • Avoid bitterness.
  • Prioritize writing.
  • Accept you can't do everything. Or maybe you can. Find out in the spirit of adventure and be prepared to forgive yourself for failure.
  • Be truly vulnerable.
  • Budget for a housecleaning service.
  • Tend to little projects before they become big ones.
  • Not everything has to be done immediately.
  • Stand behind your choices. Have conviction.
  • Hold onto what the true you feels and knows, and use that self-knowledge, so hard-won, to guide you.
  • Ground your fears in reality. There's enough of those to keep you busy.
  • Let go of past hurts, self-inflicted or otherwise.
  • Stop worrying about what you are not. Accentuate what you are.
  • Act always in a spirit of service.
  • Be generous in all ways and things.
  • Reread old journals.
  • Get published.
  • Stay on top of popular music.
  • See lots of movies.
  • Tell people on a regular basis what they mean to you.
  • Add that little something extra.
  • Travel like an explorer.
  • Be in love with just about everything.

Like this outfit.

That's my list. For people who have reached (or passed) 30 -- what would you add?

Prayer #260: Prayer for the Next Decade

Whatever it brings

Whoever I am

I will be
nothing less
that what You are crafting me to be

and that will be
nothing less
than astounding.

Amen.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Godmother: Part I (Or, can I check this box?)

Bippitt boppity God. Photo by suttonhoo, flickr

 A long-awaited dream is coming true: I'm going to be a godmother.

The little squidget isn't here yet, but oh boy, she better get ready. She's going to get crosses, prayer cards, rosary beads, picture book Bibles, the works. Plus cards and books and little frilly outfits on holidays, birthdays, and special events that only I can deem. I might even share this blog URL with her when she's older.

If I do it right, the poor kid won't know what hit her.

Of course, the opportunity to spoil a godsquidget isn't the real reason I'm excited. My dear friends asked me to be a godparent because I "live my faith." I regularly attend Mass, participate in parish life, and do my best to cultivate my spirituality. The godsquidget's mom, one of my oldest and dearest friends, said I would be a great example for their little girl.

Talk about a most humbling honor. Not to mention a huge responsibility. ("Oh hey, would you mind guiding the spiritual growth of our offspring? Kthxbai.") So I'll be honest -- I'm a little daunted.

How come? you might ask. The godsquidget won't even be aware of faith for a couple years. You have time to perfect your spiel. Well, I'm not thinking of the godsquidget just yet. I'm looking at myself first in an examination of conscience prompted by -- of all things -- paperwork.

Guiding hands. Photo by themooring, flickr

In the steadfast tradition of the Catholic Church, I have filled out a form to become a godparent, which my pastor will sign to vouch that I am indeed a practicing Catholic who has received all her Sacraments. I know I'll pass that part with flying colors. What I'm left to chew over is some of the language from the form:

A. "I believe and hold true all the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church."

I'm certainly on board with the underpinning theology -- big stuff like the Trinity, Eucharist, love thy neighbor, etc. But I disagree with the Church's stance on homosexuality, its continued refusal to ordain women, and the way it handled/handles sex abuse within its ranks, for example. So how far does "official" go? And does the Church really want me to accept each and every tenet without question? Can I check this box?

B. "I am a practicing Catholic, participate in Mass and other Sacraments regularly, [and] believe and live according to the Church's teachings."

Despite my occasional disagreements, I think the Church's teachings generally outline a good roadmap for a life of service, gratitude, and contemplation. But I also believe in a God that transcends any religious institution, and my decisions and actions derive from the values I have cultivated through that personal relationship, not only through what the Catholic Church has said should be so. Can I check this box?

C. "I agree to support and guide this candidate, most especially by my own Catholic example, my witness and through my prayers."

I literally practice Catholicism; like any discipline, it requires study, reinforcement, and creativity. But even with all that practice, I don't consider myself an exemplary Catholic because I'm not an exemplary human. I try often and fail at the same rate. I neglect to pray. And when I do, sometimes I'm not sure anyone or anything is hearing me on the other side. I doubt and I question and I fall. Is this the example they want? Can I check this box?

Floating lights on the River Ganges. Photo by whl.travel, flickr

Here's what I wish were also on the form: that beyond the crosses and beads, beyond the First Communion cards and Confirmation sponsorship, I will impart to the godsquidget the knowledge that faith is not easy or prescriptive. It is as much about her individual relationship with God as it is about her connection to our chosen religious tradition. Both can be fraught, but both can be fruitful, too, if approached with clear eyes and an open heart.

I hope my example is one of discernment and activity -- that I do not blindly or idly accept my faith, but fight to understand and live it. I want my faith -- and hers -- to come from a place of honesty and integrity. When people ask her why she believes what she believes, whatever it may turn out to be, I want her to know the answer and I want it to be wholly, authentically hers.

Above all, I want my godsquidget to grasp that she is desired beyond measure by a force greater than her mom, her dad, her brother, even her godmother. (Though I intend to give God a run for His money.) It might be years before she can articulate it, but I want her to feel in her bone marrow from the very start that she is loved.

These are the boxes I want to check for my goddaughter. Now where's the form for that?

Prayer #259: Prayer for a Godparent-to-Be

Divine Parent,

My puny human self will never live up to You. Yet I've been tasked with trying, so that another little soul down here can come to know she is part of something greater than herself.

I hope she finds community. I hope she finds wisdom. Comfort. Peace. I hope she finds Your mind-blowing, no-holds-barred, what-did-I-do-to-deserve-this love.

In the meantime, I promise to reflect that love in my puny human way and hold her hand until she's ready to walk to You on her own.

Amen.

Monday, June 10, 2013

What do you pray for when life is good?

Ice cream in the morning. Photo by Stephan Geyer, Flickr

What do you pray for when life is good?

What do you pray for when the rain is dripping off the storefront window, mere inches from your chin in hand, giving you a glass raincoat with a cozy, caffeinated lining?

What do you pray for when all your screens go dark and you have magic paper in your hands -- black and white and blinding all over with a creative spectrum invisible to those passing by the quiet reader in the corner?

What do you pray for when the noisy silence of a warm Saturday twilight carries you, all alone save for the cuddling breeze, to dreamland on the deck?

What do you pray for when you pluck sprigs of refreshment, Italy, and Christmas from the rooftop garden and stick them in jar cups to perfume the kitchen you haven't gotten around to cleaning?

Spent. Photo by thart2009, Flickr

What do you pray for when someone seems to want you, and seeming is enough to push tantalizing optimism through the sneaky leaks in your emotional dam, and you let it pour for the simple pleasure of feeling it flow again?

When do you pray for when the job is well done, and you're the one who did it, and while you have not shattered the earth you have at least nudged your own hesitant land mass a couple inches to the left?

What do you pray for when your lower register is shot because you finally stopped caring who heard you screech/belt/be imperfect?

What do you pray for when you catch your eyelashes casting shadows on a gallery wall -- a fleeting installation meant only for you?

What do you pray for when you know in your most certain heart -- that delicate poached egg balanced in a cup in the middle of your chest -- that good is all around you, that still more good things are coming, and that for once -- for a brief, breathtaking moment -- you're patient enough to wait for them?

Gushing. Photo by theilr, Flickr

Prayer #258: When Life is Good

My future is uncertain. My times are scary. My life is fluctuating. My mind and my hours are occupied always.

Yet my moments are crystallized -- perfect prisms hanging in an open window, slave to the elements, banging against the glass but never flying off.

Keep me attached to these refractive moments; they redeem the twisting in the wind.

Amen.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The conversation poet Matthea Harvey and author Edward P. Jones didn't know they had

Hidden selves. Photo by d e x t e r, flickr

They appeared before me two days apart -- one a notable poet, artist, and picture book author; the other a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. Yet what they said met in my brain as one fluid conversation, a bite-size master class about imagination, creativity, and gumption in writing.

First was Matthea Harvey's keynote at the Barrelhouse Conversations and Connections Conference on April 13. Her meditation on the creative process was a thing of beauty, as much meant to be read and seen as heard. Two nights later Edward P. Jones sat down with my Contemporary American Writers class to discuss his novel The Known World. We'd already spent weeks sifting through the novel and analyzing its craft elements; now we had the chance to ask him, in the flesh, if all the genius we perceived therein was invoked or involuntary.

I spent the last month vaguely recollecting their comments, which is a polite way of saying I was busier thinking about writing than actually writing because after several rejection letters and not-exceptional grades I was seized by a crippling fear I would never be interesting, much less published. Yet when I went back to my notes to compile this post, I remembered the flush I'd felt when each of them spoke -- a warmth spreading to my fingertips, my brain nodding, my subconscious saying, "You know what they say is true."

The following quotes are real; their arrangement is patently false. I present them only as they've been bouncing around in my mind, glomming onto each other in weird combinations, waiting for me to internalize their wisdom and return to my own pages. So, here goes.

An Imagined, Short Conversation Between Matthea Harvey and Edward P. Jones

Matthea Harvey: There's "wonder and weirdness of being a percieving human being -- aka, a writer."

Edward P. Jones: People seem to downplay the importance of imagination. ... We're born with imagination -- we might as well use it.

MH: Write like the self you hide and can't convey when you're speaking.

EJ: I myself am the only reader I have in mind.

MH: Our fingerprints are all over our poems and stories.

EJ: I am wedded to the idea of telling the best possible story I can.

EJ: The story should be captivating and the language be engaging. ... In the end, your job is to entertain.

MH: Expand your emotional palette. Try what doesn't come naturally to you.

EJ: A little bit [of symbolism] can do the job, but sometimes you have to carry it further.

MH: Get unstuck using formal or traditional forms. You dance different waltzes with different partners.

EJ: If you have an ending in mind, it guides you like a star in the sky.

MH: If I listen to my own work hard enough, I will figure out how to revise it.

EJ: It's the way it has to be done, so you do it.

MH: Keeping on when you feel hopeless is hard -- but worth it.

---

My lesson: Make the least obvious choices and follow them to their "logical" conclusions. Surprise the reader. Risk yourself. Watch what happens.

Prayer #247: "Write Like the Self You Hide"

Help me write like the self I hide,
the part of me that steeps in shame
or whoops, elated, at moments
captured only in a writer's sights.

Help me write like the self I fear,
the part of me too terrified
to fall in love with what I love
so deep I'll lose my sense of "should."

Help me write like the self I want,
the part of me that longs for blurbs
and prizes, yes, but more the part
that craves transcendence above all.

Amen.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

What happened when I crossed the bridge to Selma

The bridge leading into Selma, Ala. arcs across the Alabama River with a length of 1248.1 feet and a width of 42.3 feet. The central span is the most decorative element, a silver flourish over the otherwise basic arches. Its name is the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It's also US-80. And it happens to be a flashpoint of the Voting Rights Act, the civil rights movement, and my all-too-human cowardice.

Edmund Pettus Bridge. April 2013.

I never thought I'd see this bridge in person. I recognized it only from textbooks and documentaries -- the background for helmeted state troopers facing off against determined young black men in the Deep South. I remembered a future Georgia congressman was among the marchers. I knew it had turned violent, and that U2 had written a song that vaguely touched on it. I thought, as I do about so many markers of history when I encounter them without cropping or voiceovers, that it would be bigger.

The area around the bridge didn't seem to match its significance. On one end was a series of abandoned and run-down strip malls, hodgepodge memorials, and a Voting Rights Museum that didn't appear open. On the other was historic Selma, a pretty little downtown that at first seemed quaint until I realized the main drag was empty, despite it being a sunny spring Saturday. The entire scene felt like it was grasping, almost desperate.

The disconnect gnawed at me. Where was the uplift? Where was the dream fulfilled, the redemption story I'd been taught every February during our Black History Month curriculum when I and my (mostly white) classmates acted out a struggle that (we thought) had ended two decades before we were born?

I was as desperate as the boarded-up shops waiting for tourist dollars. I wanted that bridge to sing to me. I craved a sign that it had all come out ok, that the struggle and bloodshed had been worth it. Instead, the town seemed thwarted, as if its sadness -- the heavier of the elements -- had squashed its hope. Had Selma given up its present and its future to the cause? Was it worth it? Did it work?

Over the Bridge Records. April 2013.

Later I stood along the river walk and looked at the bridge from afar. Such a generic span, without the technical wonder of the Brooklyn Bridge or the evocative grandeur of the Golden Gate. Yet I was drawn to it with a ferocity I've never felt at those other places. It forced uncomfortable questions on me: Would you have marched across me? Would you have held the line? Or would you have watched on TV?

Of course I can put myself on the side of right in theory. But values and courage don't work that way in real life. The issues of our time are often ambiguous and almost always contentious. Taking a stand requires work, moxie, and Teflon skin. You have to prepare for hurt and heartache, and hope that it amounts to something meaningful in the end.

I want to be someone who marches across the bridge to defend what I believe is right. I want to embrace the risk that maybe my cause won't win, and then fight anyway so it doesn't become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I want to participate, not spectate. Is that urge half the battle? Is it enough to get me at least to the edge?

I never thought I'd see this bridge in person. I never expected to be in Selma. But I'm glad I did, and was, because it took being there -- crossing it, observing it, experiencing it -- for me to finally grasp what my teachers had been trying to drum into my heads during all those February lessons: that conviction is nothing without action.

Joshua 4:21-22. April 2013.

Prayer #246: On the Bridge

A bridge is not a conveyor belt. It will not roll beneath my feet or glide me forward. It will enable me to get from Point A to Point B, but it is not responsible for the getting.

Help me get to getting, Lord. Move my feet, leaden with fear. March me toward right, and stand with me in the crossing.

Amen.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Wanted: Time, three times as much

Time turner. Photo by Natalie Barletta, flickr

But Hermione was fumbling with the neck of her robes, pulling from beneath them a very long, very fine gold chain.
"Harry, come here!" she said urgently. "Quick!"
Harry moved toward here, completely bewildered. She was holding the chain out. He saw a tiny, sparkling hourglass hanging from it. ...
Hermione turned the hourglass over three times.
The dark ward dissolved. ...
"We've gone back in time," Hermione whispered, lifting the chain off Harry's neck in the darkness. "Three hours back..."
Harry found his own leg and gave it a very hard pinch. It hurt a lot, which seemed to rule out the possibility that he was having a very bizarre dream.
"But --"
"Shh! Listen! Someone's coming! I think -- I think it might be us!"

-- J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Prayer #245: Time's After Time

Someone's coming, but I think it isn't me.

My frantic pace sprouted its own legs last week and now runs rampant through my life, divorced from my control. Swept up in it are my once-lustrous ambitions, the flickering beacons I thought were steady enough to eschew temporal limits and lead me to productive glory.

I was wrong.

The constant piling, the quadruple booking, the never-saying-no -- it's lard on a grease fire, a conflagration that threatens to consume what little headway I have made and instead beat me back into a bunker to nurse my wounds with aloe and ice cream.

God of egg timers and morning alarms, hours and seconds, cause and effect -- I won't ask you to slow my man-made 24 hours. Instead, slow me. Slow my feet, my brain, my incessant drive to do do DO.

Doing does not equal accomplishing. Going does not equal arriving. Show me the common sense of these non-equations, and free my spirit to move through time as You intended -- with a gentle swoosh and slide, along no lines.

Amen.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Use what you have: An Easter meditation

Photo by Summers, flickr

This year, for the first time in ages, I had a productive Lent. Not because I sacrificed something (though, in a way, I did). And not because I added something (though, in a way, I did). What made the difference this Lent -- the Christian Church's 40-day period of penitence and fasting from Ash Wednesday to Easter -- was that I practiced something.

Now, this wasn't practice in the sense of "spend 30 minutes with your violin each day." I vowed at the start of Lent that my practice -- my intentional application -- would be to use what I have. This meant: Eat what's in the pantry. Wear what's in the closet. Mend what's broken. Pick up what's neglected. In essence, I would do my best to honor what I already possessed.

Did it work? Yes. But not in the way I anticipated.

Every day, at every decision point, I said  to myself, "Use what you have." So I drank the tea I had at the office instead of stopping at Starbucks. I dug clothes out of the back of the closet and gave away what I knew I wouldn't wear anymore. I scoured my cupboards and freezer for forgotten ingredients and learned new recipes that incorporated them.

Soon, however, without me realizing it, the practice expanded beyond tangible possessions. I considered the moral implications of what I purchased, if it had any hidden environmental or social justice costs. When making plans with friends, I did my best to find activities that were free or inexpensive.  If I ended up eating out, I tried to order simpler, lighter food. I even scrutinized my time more -- how was I allocating it, for what, with whom? Were those precious hours productive? Fulfilling? And if not, how could I make them so?

Most of all, I was struck by how often I was repeating my Lenten mantra. Looking back, I probably invoked it at least 200 times over forty days. I never noticed before how many opportunities I had throughout a day to make a different choice, to pause for a minute and truly consider what was before me.

The result? I felt lighter. Less clutter, both material and mental, surrounded me. Without intending to, I had made room, giving my life some much-needed margins again.

Which brings me to today, Easter, the highest holy day in my faith tradition. I was sitting at services this morning, listening to the homily, when the priest started talking about our constant human quest to figure out what the hell our lives are all about. He said (and I paraphrase), "From the moment your parents created you to today, God has prepared you to be who you are for this moment. So why hold onto our pasts? You are ready now. You have what you need."

And there it was, the lesson that took me forty days to understand: Use what you have to find what you need.

In my case, I needed to make space for contemplation and reflection so I can check in with God on where I am and what I might do next. And now that I have it, I'll use it. And once I use that I'll discover a new gift, and then I'll use that, and on and on I'll go in a gorgeous virtuous cycle, never alone, never abandoned, never unloved.

May we all use what we have. Happy Easter, everyone.

Prayer #244: Use All That I Am

Possess me, God, threadbare rag that I am, in a way that's not about having, but releasing. Pull me from the back of the closet, dunk me in the hottest water You can run, wring out the calcified crust I've gathered, and drape me over the balcony rail to dry, where I'll have nothing to do in the warm sun except flutter, and think, and wonder how I can earn being washed so clean.

Amen.

Friday, March 15, 2013

One day your life won't be like this

West Virginia snow? Or Narnia? March 2013

Last night -- somewhere in between working late to prep for a day off, squeezing in homework on the treadmill at the gym, planning two menus yet food-shopping for three, scurrying around giving small tasks great import and important tasks undue smallness -- a thought came to me:

One day my life won't be like this.

I thought about my possible children -- how many? what color hair? how often will they get stomach viruses? -- and how I'd finally have someone around to help me fold fitted sheets. I thought about my possible husband -- just one? what color hair? does he like The Dick Van Dyke Show? --  and how he'd add his hands to the never-ending to-do list and also force me to sit on the couch. I thought about writing, about finally being published, and how I'd be able to drop that juicy tidbit into cocktail hour coversations. I thought about where I might be living, and what my routine might look like, and what might be driving me crazy and what might be astounding me and what might have fizzled away not even into memory, and I wondered: How will I pack lunches and be a listening ear and get my work into Harper's and help with carpool and retire by 65 and travel the world and call my friends and keep the house clean enough to avoid vermin if my very existence already overwhelms me?

Then another thought came to me:

Why not try living this night first, in all its guts and glory?

And then tomorrow night.

And then every night thereafter, until the nights are gone.

Prayer #243: Going, Going, Here

God of a million tasks and must-dos and nice-to-haves,

Show me what is worth pursuing. Show me what is worth fretting about. Show me what demands action and what needs setting aside.

Remind me that stopping -- really stopping, as in putting down objects, turning off devices, looking up and around me -- anchors me to my present. Ground me in my current dreams and frustrations, as well as in the wisdom that every personal epoch has benefits and drawbacks. Slap me silly until I remember that now is already a good ol' day, simply by virtue of the sun rising.

But more than anything, douse me in the grace of perspective -- that for all my annoyances and tired moments, for all my panics and tirades, I am free, the driver of my own destiny, accountable only to myself and to You for what I make of this life.

Amen.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Share the lasagna: A useful lesson for co-grievers about grief

Good grief. Photo by mrlerone, flickr

Last month, in the span of 10 days, two of my close friends each lost their father to cancer in a far-away state. They quickly melted away into a haze of preparations, family, and grieving. I disappeared into a Cheezit box.

Yes, it's true: When major life events like a parent's death happen to people I love, I resort to eating my feelings of helplessness and inadequacy. I'm never sure my actions are enough. Should I call? Send flowers? Donate? Fly out to the funeral? Give them space? Bake eight lasagnas, put six in their freezers, and eat two myself?

My touchpoint on such matters is my experience with my best friend, who first lost her father and then, two years later, her mother. I was with my friend in the days immediately following her mother's death as she planned for the funeral, made arrangements, and welcomed visitors to the house. We looked at a lot of photo albums together and shared memories at the dinner table. We cried at innocuous triggers and wallowed in occasional gallows humor. There was a lot of hugging. A lot of listening. A lot of wordlessness, not because we ran out of things to say, but because what we wanted to discuss was beyond conversation.

In the midst of that long weekend, a package arrived for my friend via FedEx. Another friend in a different state, afraid that my friend hadn't been able to pack enough clothes for her now-extended stay, bought and mailed several casual outfits to her "just in case." My friend cried when she opened the package. I did, too -- because I feared that I would never be so insightful or proactive for someone I loved.

These past couple weeks, as I struggled to keep tabs on my friends in their far-off states, that selfish fear resurfaced. I didn't know their parents' mailing addresses. I didn't know the final funeral plans. I felt remote and disconnected -- an unsettling, foreign feeling in an age of instant status updates. But this wasn't the sort of thing I wanted to see shared on Facebook or through texts anyway. I wanted to see my friends right in front of me. I wanted to hug them. If I was going to feel inadequate and helpless, I might as well do it with them in my sights.

Comfort. Photo by williamhartz, flickr

Add to all this my grief-by-association, my own fearful sorrows bubbling up through empathy. Part of me can't accept that I've now had several friends lose their parents. It forces me to confront my own mortality, the passage of time, the randomness of illness and suffering, and the fact that, yes Julia, you are almost 30 years old and losing the generation right in front of you is no longer as unusual or untimely as it once was.

Extend, then, these feelings to my own parents, who at the moment are healthy and fine and God willing will stay that way for a thousand years to come. Nonetheless, my friends' losses make me want to be with my mom and dad. They make me afraid I'm not doing/loving/hugging/visiting/calling enough, that I'm not making the most of the time we have. (The rational part of me knows that living with these hyper-aware emotions always at the surface would lead to head explosion, and not to worry because we make a practice of living in love, but still, I want lasagna.)

It all boils down to this, my big question as a co-griever: Is doing nothing better than doing the wrong thing? Or does "the wrong thing" not even exist in such extraordinary circumstances?

Stone faces. Photo by Eva the Weaver, flickr

Then one friend came home to DC again. And the other friend returned my phone call. And they answered my question without knowing my heart was screaming it.

Hearing their voices, listening to their stories, making them laugh, finally hugging them ... I grasped all at once that I was not doing the wrong thing at all. I was doing the right things that derived from our unique friendships. I was being present. And there are as many ways to be present as there are relationships on this earth.

I will probably never think to send clothes to a friend. But the ways to be present that reflect who I am and what I'm feeling for my loved ones -- in my case, cards, listening, and food -- are perfectly acceptable and all the more sincere because they're true to what I can offer.

The best part is, all their other friends and family are doing the same thing, each in their own way. At any given moment, someone will know what to do and step up for their loved one. Our collective force, these intricate and emotional human webs, are catching and bearing up the people who need it. It doesn't relieve us of our individual responsibility, but it does relieve us of the pressure to be everything.

So that's what I'm taking forward as my friends continue to grieve, celebrate, and love their parents: Be present. Act in thoughtful love. Share the lasagna.

Prayer #242: To the Griever, From Your Co-Griever

I called because I missed you and wanted to hear your voice.

I hugged you in the hallway because I couldn't for weeks and wanted to be sure you were really back.

I joked with you because I have the brain space to see right now that life is still funny and wanted you to see it too.

I cried with you because I ran out of words.

I am selfish and nosy and pushy, probably full of fixes you don't want and solutions you can't have. But if I do manage to hit on what you need -- the exact right thing at the exact right moment -- then grab it with both hands and don't let go. Be selfish, nosy, and pushy right back. That's where we'll meet in the middle, and that's how we'll push through this, together.

Amen.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Am I worthy of this day?

Would you pass? Photo by lonely radio, flickr

Never get so fascinated by the extraordinary that you forget the ordinary. -- Magdalen Nabb

Prayer #241: Worthy of This Day

Make me worthy of this day.

Make me worthy of the alarm going off yet again and the warm bed I struggle to leave.
Make me worthy of the piercing wind and the Chenille scarf, wound tightly.
Make me worthy of the long walk across town and the streets I cross without incident.
Make me worthy of the thick PB&J I have for lunch and the apple I eat in the afternoon.
Make me worthy of the back-to-back meetings and the agendas we somewhat followed.
Make me worthy of the eight checked-off list items and the six that remain for tomorrow.
Make me worthy of the quiet train car humming home and my reflection in its window.
Make me worthy of the new book from the library and the dogeared bookmark in it.
Make me worthy of the calls to be returned and the voicemails stacking up despite me.
Make me worthy of the sagging denim couch and the coffee table I put my feet on.
Make me worthy of the words I scribble on scraps and the journals I tend to neglect.
Make me worthy of the lumpy pillow on my bed and the hopscotching dreams it invites.

Make me worthy of this day.

Make me worthy of this life.

Amen.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

An open letter to the love of my life: Valentine's Day edition

Examine your promises. Photo by animm, flickr

Howdy there love,

Are you expecting a Valentine's Day hater post? I'm sorry to disappoint you, then. I don't actually hate V-Day. Its over-commercialization and ooey-gooey sentiment? Yes, I hate that. The bitter "Singles Awareness Day" anti-Valentine snark? Yes, I hate that too. But the idea of a holiday celebrating love? What's not to love about that?

Amid the blaring red hearts and sappy love songs, I've been thinking about the core of love -- its mystery, its awe, its demands. I've been thinking about my family, my friends, my colleagues, my fellow movers about the world, my God. I love them all in their own way, some more easily, some more deeply than others.

Here's the sticky wicket about love, though: If you're truly open to it, you risk becoming unmoored. I think that's the truer meaning of "swept off your feet" -- that you've left yourself so vulnerable to this remarkable emotion that you relinquish control and go off in the tide.

That said, it's damn hard to get to that point. I'm a pretty loving person, and I've barely scratched the surface at times. The depth I feel in moments when I do breach my own limits frightens me with its intensity. But it entices me as well. Addicts me, even. I want more of that feeling in my life -- with God, with family, with friends, with you.

So in the absence of a V-day date (I'm going to an improv + burlesque show instead, because what's more indicative of my love life right now than laughs and pasties?), I'm going to make you a promise. Promises, after all, are commitments -- IOUs, declarations, assurances. And I'm committed if nothing else.

I promise to be open to love. Not just love of you, but all love. Real love. Love at its core. I promise to fear it yet invite it anyway. I promise to seek it and appreciate it. I promise to form it where it doesn't exist. For I believe that knowing love -- living love -- will lead me to everything that's worth having in this world.

Will that include you? I sure hope so.

Love,
Me

---

Yep, you guessed it: more open letter crowdsourcing. Round 3's prompt was, "What do you promise to the love of your life, be they found, lost, or unknown?" I hope the result inspires you to make some promises of your own.

Bonus dare: Listen to this song while you read the post and try not to have feelings.


---

Prayer #240: An Open Letter to the Love of my Life (part 3)

To the one I love:

I promise to treasure you and our love. I promise to enjoy and acknowledge it, to be responsive to its needs, as if it were a living thing to be tended.

I promise to always care. I'm not sure I can honestly promise that anything else will always be true, but I will always care.

I will work by your side to reach our goals -- and our potential -- as individuals and as a unit. I promise to challenge you, but also to lend you help and support when you need it, and to accept your help and support in return.

So many people seem to allow "becoming comfortable" with each other to include taking each other for granted. I promise to try to not let that happen. I will be grateful for you.

I promise to cherish traditions and remember who we are, while exploring new adventures with you and being open to changing together.

I promise to be better, even though you never ask. I will go out of my comfort zone for you. Over and over again.

I promise to value your time, your heart, and your mind. I promise to still reach for your hand five, 20, 68 years in.

I also promise to try and remember why I wanted to be with you in the first place. Those exciting reasons and feelings fade with time, but I think they are critical to keeping the promise of forever love.

I promise to say I love you every day and every night no matter what.

I promise to celebrate life's little things with you, and I will include chocolate cake at all special occasions.

I promise I'll be happy even if all the other things in my life fall through, because nothing gives me greater joy than keeping my promises to you.

Amen.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Don't you dare pull my strings: A rant about destiny

Expectant puppets. Photo by msoe, flickr

"It's time I share the news," my fellow choir member said during practice a couple weeks ago. "I'm taking a new job ... and I'm moving to the Midwest."

We all started oohing and aahing and crowding around her, asking what she'd be doing, inquiring if she knew anyone out there, probing about how the pending change was affecting her. She explained it was the right career step for her and that she'd prayed deeply about it.

"I'm just along for the ride!" she said. "God's pulling all the strings."

Everyone nodded in total agreement. Except me, who looked at her as if she'd suggested she was going to move her belongings across state lines via unicycle.

God's pulling all the strings. Her phrase has been driving me bonkers for two solid weeks. Why? Because it smacks of predestination -- the doctrine that God, because He knows everything and is always right, has "appointed and ordained" everything that's ever happened and will happen for the rest of time, and thus by extension knows who's reaching salvation and who's not.

Then I start down the path of thinking about free will -- the doctrine that God created us as rational creatures who "initiate and control" (read: choose) our own actions and are responsible for those decisions and their consequences, in the supreme hope that we'd seek Him (read: good) above all else.

And then there's a mind-bending middle ground where God knows what we're going to choose but leaves us free to choose it anyway. (Aggravatingly circular example here.)

[Here, incidentally, is where I throw up my hands and screech, why the hell are any of us presuming to know what God does or doesn't know? Is He sitting on a fluffy cloud right now chuckling about how I was predestined to write a post about predestination? Doesn't he have much, MUCH bigger fish to fry? Like, I don't know, war?]

But back to my fellow singer for a moment. She was already considering the new job. She was actively reflecting on what her best next step might be. She was taking into account her dreams, her interests, and her potential calling. So to say only that "God's pulling all the strings" ... doesn't that write off the intense effort, thought, and discernment she put into this decision too?

Discernment. For me, that's the lynch pin in this armchair-theology cluster of a post. No matter what the "truth" is, no matter which doctrine will prove correct when we arrive at the pearly gates, she made a conscious, heartfelt effort to seek out God and ask how she might best serve the world. That's faith right there, because she could have hated hearing the answer. But she asked anyway, and I think she deserves credit for that because it is really. damn. HARD.

At the end of the day, I believe what God wants from us the most is just to say hi, check in, and ask. What we do from there is up to us. We can accept or reject, adjust or rebel. But the common thread is action, because faith -- a dynamic, sincere, responsible faith -- requires us to participate in our own destiny.

Prayer #239: Destiny's Child

If the Calvinists are to be believed, then we are all riding along in one big Driver's Ed vehicle where we think we have control of the car, but really the instructor can hit the breaks from the passenger side at any point.

It's not that I can't do this alone. (Though let's be honest -- I probably can't.) It's more that I shouldn't do it alone. So I won't. Because even if You do know where I'm ending up, I still have no clue what's coming, so we might as well put the high beams on together.

Amen.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Water the damn seeds: A reminder about potential

Photo by splityarn
"There’s a darkness upon me that’s flooded in light
In the fine print they tell me what’s wrong and what’s right
And it comes in black and it comes in white
And I’m frightened by those that don’t see it

When nothing is owed or deserved or expected
And your life doesn’t change by the man that’s elected
If you’re loved by someone, you’re never rejected
Decide what to be and go be it

There was a dream and one day I could see it
Like a bird in a cage I broke in and demanded that somebody free it
And there was a kid with a head full of doubt
So I’ll scream til I die and the last of those bad thoughts are finally out ..."

-- The Avett Brothers, "Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise"

One benefit of taking Latin throughout high school is that I now know the linguistic roots for many random SAT vocab words. For example:
  • Insula means island, which leads to insular.
  • Mel (mellis) means honey, which is how we arrived at the "smooth, rich flow" of mellifluous.
  • Potens means power -- and with power comes a great amount of words, including onmipotent, impotent, and potential.

Potens in particular kept floating up the other day as I spent three hours hunched over my keyboard devoting full attention and angst to researching POTENTIAL publishers for my POTENTIAL stories as a necessary precursor to my POTENTIAL rise to fame and eternal literary glory.

"Must have an agent."
"Must be a published author."
"Must have clips from other national magazines."

Catch-22s, I groused. What plebeian dreamer could hope to scale these walls? What blood money or promise of first-born children could I deliver to launch my still-potential career?

Then I remembered: Actually submitting the stories would be a good start.

So here I am. All potential; nothing realized. All capable of developing; nothing developed. All poised to exist; nothing there.

On one hand, it's heady to have only daydreams. Reality can't poke a hole in my airy castle. No one can contradict my vision. But on the other hand, I shirk accountability. Reality never has a chance to exceed my wildest dreams, and people can't appreciate what I've created.

So it's all potential. All capable. All poised. All within my power (eh? see what I did there?) to realize. And therein lies the reminder and the gauntlet ...

The reminder: Potential means already having within you the seeds for success.

The gauntlet: Water the damn seeds.

---
Prayer #238: Go Be It

Do not gather dust on a neglected shelf, or hang unseen in a shadowy hallway, or shrivel up for want of water, simply because you forgot to make good on what I gave you.

If conditions aren't right, make them right. If you can't make them right, ignore them. I formed you intending motion, and motion I will have, before your potentiality rots from lack of exercise.

Be a fact. Be actual. Be real in the fullest sense -- the real I want you to be.

Amen.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The scared person's guide to bravery

"You may be disappointed if you fail, but you are doomed if you don't try." -- Beverly Sills

London, England. Photo by jose.jhg

What, exactly, is bravery? (See also courage and vulnerability.)

It's often painted in militaristic terms -- rooftop proclamations, flags planted in triumph, bellowing brute force. But braver still is a handshake -- an overture to peace.

To be brave is to defy self-preservation. It dares the uncomfortable and invites the pain. Bravery accepts what must be done and does it when no one else is looking (or bothering).

Bravery is the pit in your stomach before the plunge and the release you feel after the thud. Bravery is appreciating the stakes. It finds glory in the attempt, not in the victory.

And who's to say what victory is, anyway? Maybe in this moment, being brave is victory enough. If so, acknowledge it. Bravery doesn't laugh or gloat, but it does permit itself a sigh and a pat on a back occasionally.

Bravery is getting going. Bravery is stopping. Bravery is trying at all. It's knowing you did what you thought was right, even when "right" is murky.

"Brave" is perceived. Bravery is demonstrated.

Bravery starts hard conversations.

It signs its letters.

It makes eye contact.

It requires much and often returns less. But still, I ask to be brave, because bravery is the only way any real work gets done.

Prayer #237: Bull's-Eye

Bravery is not shooting the arrow. Bravery is being the target.

Put me square in the bull's-eye from this moment on, red and blaring, to beckon the challenge.

Amen.