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.


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.


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.