Tuesday, December 15, 2015

9 things I learned during my graduate writing program

Pages coming to life. Photo by Maria Teresa Ambrosi, Flickr

My trusty green folder is dog-eared. My cloth book bag is worn. My colorful pens are depleted. I have filled several notebooks, reviewed hundreds of manuscripts, and printed a gajillion pages/killed a gajillion trees. Now, after three years, nine classes, and one thesis, I am done. I have earned my M.A. in Writing.

But in truth, I have been on this artistic journey since I was five years old, with significant steps in 2008 when I started this blog and in 2009 when I reclaimed my dream of writing. I puttered around on my own for a couple years, finding my way to picture book drafts; I contemplated the spiritual facets of creativity, seeking out artists on similar quests; and I finally understood that my dreams were mine alone to realize, leading me to apply for graduate school and push past roadblocks of my own construction.

No sooner did I start the program, however, then I saw the children's book author Avi at the 2012 National Book Festival and had the inarticulate epiphany that eclipsed my articulated goals. As I wrote then:
"Oh my god," I realized. "I can do this. This is a thing. And it's my thing. I can write and tell stories and touch people and talk to them and encourage them to do the same. I want this to be my life. This should be my life."

The conviction behind the thought overwhelmed me. I wasn't considering my day job or personal development; I wasn't project-managing the situation. I was simply stating what I wanted more deeply than anything else in the world.

The epiphany scared me shitless.

In that moment, my scary, hairy, audacious dream sank its fangs in my neck and could not be shaken loose. I could deny it no longer; I had to find a way to write or spend the rest of my life wondering what I could have accomplished if I'd only tried. So with my dream snuffling and drooling on my back for three years, I set about trying.

What, then, besides narrative elements and sentence constructions and query letters have I learned about writing? Or to put it another way, what would I say to my just-starting self, the eager beaver who wrote an open letter to her graduate school professors, about her goals, her passion, and her individual creative process? Perhaps this:

  • You will surprise yourself. Werewolves? Space adventures? Second comings of Christ? I never thought I'd touch such topics, and yet I did, and wouldn't you know, some of it is readable. But the surprise lay in more than just topics. It came from late nights blinking at the ceiling because my mind was busy, and from comments I overheard on the metro, and from syntax exercises that turned into labors of love. It came from parts of my brain and heart I rarely tap, and it was those revelations that led to my most moving work.

  • You are built to workshop. All those hopes and dreams and imaginations crammed into one classroom, an avalanche of voice and vision ... how could this ENFJ not revel in the boundless, thrilling potential of creative midwives attending the birth of art? Writing is by nature a solitary craft, so workshops are critical air vents for my pent-up thoughts and questions. Without them, I would give up in a fog of loneliness and second-guessing, with no one to share my vision.

  • You were right to wait to submit. A year or so into the program, I permitted myself not to worry about getting published yet and instead focus on crafting work worth publishing. By redirecting my energy to learning how I write -- my cycles, peaks, motivators, hang-ups, bogeymen, superpowers -- I built a stronger foundation for my writing career. Now I will submit my work with far greater confidence and perspective, and thus a greater likelihood of success.

  • Hustle is essential. In the words of author Kitty Kelley (via my thesis advisor), "Perseverance and determination alone are omnipotent." If I don't send my work out, I will not be published. Simple as that. So I must turn this next phase into a numbers game, one where grit and gumption see me through the inevitable and regular failures. It's not unlike a job search in that regard, where smart research and targeted applications reap a higher rate of response. Which brings me to ...

  • Your Type A personality is an asset. I used to think I was too uptight to be a good writer, too much a fan of control to let the madman overtake the judge. But there's a time and place for every skill, and when it comes to the task of getting published, my beloved spreadsheets and calendars are precisely what will take me from saved drafts to literary credits. I don't have to fit the stereotype of a flighty scribbler in a garret; instead, I can play to my natural tendencies and project-manage my way into print.

  • You will survive rejection. I am prepared for the onslaught of nos. Not ready, per se, nor accepting of it, but prepared. Because in the end, neither form rejections nor breathless acceptances define me; writing does.

  • You have found your tribe. I never feel as much like the person I believe I am meant to be as when I am with other writers. They are my gang, my kindred spirits, the ones who "get it" without me having to explain. I need to hold them close and treat them well, because they above all will keep me going through the dark nights bound to come.

  • You can -- and do -- move people. Readers have giggled and welled up at my work, but will publishers? Doesn't matter. My loyal readers know the deal, and they're in my corner willing me to move them anew.

  • You will be published. I haven't been yet. It might take forever. But I have stated the goal out loud in multiple ways at multiple times now, and I will keep saying it until I call it into being. I believe it now more than ever. I can do it. I will do it. And I will not accept anything less of myself.
So. I have submitted my thesis copies and performed my reading, checked my grade and thanked my professors. All that's left is to sustain my momentum, make good on the lessons I've learned, and be the writer I now know I am. Easy ... right?


Prayer #294: Vision Revisited (see Prayer #226)

You now see the vision I planted in your heart, and the look in your eyes is breathtaking.

You want it more than anything you've ever wanted before, I can tell. You see it cross-legged in the corner, a patient Buddha of lifelong potential, and you think you are close enough to touch it. But when you reach out, it is still one arm's length beyond your grasp.

Only one, though. Much closer than when it first emerged in a shadowy corner, soft and unformed at its edges, and infinitely closer than when it snoozed alone in the dark, hidden and unknown to you. (Though I always knew it was there.)

This I promise you: I will help you do everything in your power to make up that final length. Whether you need longer arms or wider steps or seventeen revolutions around the room, I will support you as you shorten the distance, just as I have supported you year and year, day after day, for as long as you've inched closer.

Not that you want any more advice from me, of course, but I'll say it anyway. Stay strong. Stay focused. Stay the course. Though you might not hear it, I am cheering for you -- ever louder, ever prouder.

Amen.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Engaged!

Oh hey look, it's the love of my life!

"There was an intense emotionality at this time: music I loved, or the long golden sunlight of late afternoon, would set me weeping. I was not sure what I was weeping for, but I would feel an intense sense of love, death, and transience, inseparably mixed."

-- Oliver Sacks, On the Move

So much I want to say, and no clue where to begin.

I could start with the moment he proposed to me beside an outcrop of rocks near the Sky Meadows trailhead, but that moment was surreal.

I could start with the thrilled, marveling look on his face (mirrored on mine as well) when we first used the word fiance, but that look was fleeting.

I could start with the unnerving sensation of my feet floating three feet above the ground, levitated by the outpouring of love and support and exclamation from the people dearest to our hearts, but that sensation moves me to tears every time I examine it, and writing an entire essay about it might lead to hospitalization.

So instead I will start with my first lesson of engaged life -- that to be now on the other side of engagement is to learn exactly what it entails and why it is, in fact, a really big deal.

I don't say that last statement tongue in cheek. After all, I am part of a faith tradition that celebrates and upholds marriage, and I have always applauded sincere commitment, the sacrifice and "death to self" that it entails. It's more that my fiance (!!) and I had been saying to each other for months that we were "engaged in our hearts," so what, we thought, could a mere question change?

Apparently, everything.

In case it's not clear, we're really, REALLY excited.

Stating our commitment out loud -- officially, formally, in a way that asks everyone in our lives to bear witness and keep us accountable -- kicks the whole endeavor up six notches. We have told the world we are serious about each other and our shared life, and by gum the world is going to hold us to it.

And that's just the external effect. There's this whole internal shift too that I didn't fully grasp until my in-that-moment-soon-to-be-fiance (!!) was standing before me, sharing how much he loves me, holding an oval box in his hand, asking me to marry him, and suddenly after years of faceless, backdrop-less daydreams about my future partner, it hit me: Here was the real person, the real deal, and the reality was a million times more profound than anything I'd ever imagined on my own. (Which is saying something, because I have a very active imagination.)

What's more, I finally grasped the full measure and value of my past experiences and relationships, however confused or painful or breathtaking they were, for I would not have become who I am today, or appreciate my partner so fully, without them. How healing, then, to find my person. How healing, to love him. How healing, to experience his love in return.

So much I want to say, and no clue how to say it. So I will simply say, he is here. The bright, kind, compassionate, loving, funny, adventurous, thoughtful, good man I always envisioned. He is finally, beautifully here. He is standing before me. He is standing beside me. He wants me as much as I want him. We are creating a future together, a terrific marriage, one that (God willing) will involve board game nights and Pizza Fridays and bocce on the back lawn and a thriving kitchen garden and Post-It love notes and trips around the world and fat babies we will squeeze and love until they grow up and have fat babies of their own and then we'll squeeze and love them too, and all because we had the great good fortune to join the same guitar group, strike up a conversation, and fall in love.

So much I want to say, but now I have a lifetime to say it to him, over and over and over again.

That's where we'll begin, then. With love.


Prayer #293: The Prayer I'm Thrilled to Finally Write

God of loving covenants,

THANK YOU.

Thank you thank you thank you thank you.

Thank you for this person, for everything he already is, for everything we will become together.

Thank you for this opportunity -- for the chance to draw closer to you through the act of loving another so deeply and completely.

May I ask one more favor, though? (As if you haven't done enough.) Please be the hand that underwrites our contract. Be the witness to our pledge and the buttress for our vows. Help us keep our soul-deep promise to each other as we prepare our own covenant -- one that honors capital-L LOVE, which is to say, you.

And did I say "thank you" yet? Because thank you from the bottom of my puny, weepy, overjoyed human heart as it blossoms ten-fold in gratitude's bright light.

Amen.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Prayer is a conversation we carry on in questions

Who asked first? Photo by Jared Cherup, Flickr

"I am not a man of God," said Tauwhare, frowning.

"And yet there is much of God in you," Devlin replied. "I believe you must have an instinct for prayer, Te Rau -- to have come here today. To pay respects at your dear friend's grave -- to pray over him, indeed."

Tauwhare shook his head. "I don't pray for Crosbie. I remember him."

"That's all right," Devlin said. "That's fine. Remembering is a very good place to start." Smiling slightly he pressed the pads of his fingers together, and then tilted both hands down -- his clerical pose. "Prayers often begin as memories. When we remember those whom we have loved, and miss them, naturally we hope for their safety and their happiness, wherever they might be. That hope turns into a wish, and whenever a wish is voiced, even silently, event without words, it becomes a supplication. Perhaps we don't know to whom we're speaking; perhaps we ask before we truly know who's listening, or before we even believe that listener exists. But I judge it to be a very fine beginning, to make a practice of remembering those people we have loved. When we remember others fondly, we wish them health and happiness and all good things. [...]"

[...]

"A prayer needn't always be a supplication, of course," Devlin added. "Some prayers are expressions of gladness; some are expressions of thanks. But there is hope in all good feelings, Te Rau, even in feelings that remember the past. The prayerful man, the good man, is always hopeful; he is always an optimist. A man is made hopeful by his prayers."

Tauwhare, who had received this sermon doubtfully, only nodded. "These are wise words," he added, feeling pity for his interlocutor.

In general Tauwhare's conception of prayer was restricted to the most ritualized and oratorical sort. The ordered obeisance of the whaikorero produced in him, as did all rituals of speech and ceremony, a feeling of centrality and calm, the likes of which he could not manufacture alone, and nor did he wish to. The sensation was quite distinct from the love he felt for his family, which he experienced as a private leaping in his breast, and distinct, too, from the pride he felt in himself, which he felt as a pressurized excitement, an elated certainty that no man would ever match him, and no man would ever dare to try. It ran deeper than the natural goodness that he felt, watching his mother shuck mussels and pile the slippery meat into a wide-mouthed flax basket on the shore, and knowing, as he watched her, that his love was good, and wholly pure; it ran deeper than the virtuous exhaustion he felt after a day stacking the rua kumara, or hauling timber, or plaiting harakeke until the ends of his fingers were pricked and raw. Te Rau Tauwhare was a man for whom the act of love was the true religion, and the altar of this religion was one in place of which no idols could be made.

"Shall we go to the grave together?" Devlin said.

-- excerpt from The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton


Prayer #292: Some Questions

What is prayer? Pleas and bows, yes, but is it also hugs and screams? Is it as simple as remembering, as immediate as invoking?

And what of its tone? Is a "prayer" by nature positive, in that its creation signals a flicker of faith where perhaps none is thought to be? Then what of those times when the prayer is a wail, a keening moan flecked with spit and blood that twists throughout an unresponsive cosmos?

And what of your response? If your unpracticed antennae cannot detect a reply, how does that build hope? How do you put an ear horn to the most remote canal of your psyche and listen for speeches in a language you don't speak? How can you not in these silent, ticking moments feel less heeded, less wanted, less loved?

And what of different kinds of love? What of the contemplation of it, the experience of it, the demonstration of it? When the wild first surrounds you, undirected and circumspect, do you make your steps more tender across the shifting bog? When the second hugs you from behind, do you whip around to match arms to face, or do you simply revel in the tight sensation? And when the third -- focused, ordered, intentional -- speaks what you cannot articulate and shows what you cannot describe, what is left for you to do?

What then is prayer? It is a conversation we carry on in questions.

Amen.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

In search of a church

"We are each other's holding bread." Photo by Susy Morris, Flickr

Earlier this year, the new pastor at my parish dissolved the music ministry group I was an active part of. For three years, there in the corner to the left of the altar, I had contributed to dynamic worship, befriended faith-filled musicians, and -- in answer to many tearful prayers said from that very spot -- met and fell in love with a wonderful man.

Yet with one executive decision, my roots in the parish were yanked out, replaced with an approach to liturgy that, while I don't disagree with, is not the sole way I want to serve and worship. I hoped for a congregational outcry, a change of heart from the pastor, but neither arrived. Within months the music group was officially dead. So, cut adrift with our wounds still raw, Nature Boy and I spent the summer searching for a church.

The process has been neither easy nor successful. Each weekend we bounce around from pew to pew -- weighing the quality of the liturgy, the impact of the preaching, and the spirit of the parish -- and each weekend we realize anew the depth of our loss. Change is always hard, but it's a particular slog when you feel so powerless throughout the process. And though we've experienced other moving services and witnessed other loving communities in action, none of them feel quite like the home we knew and loved.

One unexpected benefit of this unsettled period, however, is that it has given me a new appreciation for the doctrinal tenet that the Church -- the people of God -- are the body of Christ. Bodies have beating hearts. They are warm, lively, breathing, aching. They yearn to hold and be held, just as Nature Boy and I are yearning right now.

Anne Lamott put it poignantly in a recent Facebook post:

"I think often of the weeks after the end of WWII, in the refugee camps for orphans and dislocated kids. Of course the children couldn't sleep! But the grown-ups discovered that after you fed them, if you gave them each a piece of bread just to hold, they would drift off. It was holding bread. There was more to eat if they were still hungry. This was bread to hold, to remind them and connect them to the great truth -- that morning would come, that there were grown-ups who cared and were watching over them, that there would be more food when they awoke. [...] We are each other's holding bread."

We, the wider community of believers and want-to-believers, are all striving to follow a higher power, though we have moments where doubt and fear tell us otherwise. What we do know for sure, however, beyond dispute or refute, is that other human beings are with us right now, and it is our mandate as fellow travelers to extend hands, offer snacks, and say hello. Because even if nothing ends up coming after this bumpy ride of a life, we will at least have manifested love during our time here.

That's why I remain hopeful that Nature Boy and I will find a new spiritual community. The body of Christ is by definition much bigger than one person and one decision. And the more we seek, the more we explore, the more we hold hands with smiling strangers, the more I feel the wide circle of arms drawing closer, and I know we will be ok.

Prayer #291: Holding Bread

As bakers yawn and stumble gather in the pre-dawn hours to tie their aprons and stoke their ovens, so we rub our groggy eyes and squint to see You in the filmy light. And though we cannot not always see clearly, we continue to bake bread and break bread in Your name.

Help us offer this sustenance in abundance and never with condition. When we profess our need for you, knead us in return -- a gentle heel, a firm pat, an attentive push to rise higher than we've risen before, filled with breath and room and life to spare.

Amen.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

What to pray for when you don't know what to do next

What comes next? Photo by Niklas Friedwall, Flickr

Where do you turn when you don't know what to write your next blog post on? To a classic Ignatian prayer about discernment, of course.

Suscipe

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.

You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.
-- St. Ignatius of Loyola

I had never heard of this prayer before coming across it on Facebook one day, and I immediately filed it away in my "Blog Post Inspiration" folder (for yes, I do have such a folder) for future noodling.

At first reading, I interpreted it as a prayer of thanksgiving -- a saint-backed example of what you pray for when life is good. But then I did a little research about it, and I learned that it's part of St. Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises, a four-stage process designed to deepen people's experience of God in their daily lives.

In particular, the Suscipe -- which translates from Latin as "take," the opening word -- prepares the pray-er for discernment. What's discernment? Check out this article's explanation:

"The Catholic spiritual tradition calls decision making “discernment.” The word implies not coming up with a new idea completely out of our own creativity, but clarifying things so that we can see and understand something that’s already in place: what God wants us to do."

I like this explanation because it maintains how each of us has free will to choose our path, and that there is no preordained plan about what that path will be. Rather, putting ourselves in the mindset of the Suscipe achieves two seemingly contradictory goals: It liberates us from our own preconcieved options while it also deepens our responsibility to mull over any routes that maybe we ignored, feared, and didn't even recognize before.

So, while I doubt the Higher Being is overly concerned right now with the contents of my blog post, I do like to think I've taken one baby step toward venturing farther into the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises so that when the time comes for discernment beyond the scope of a blog topic, I'll be ready.

Prayer #290: Suscipe, Inverted

You took, Lord, and recieved all my demands,
my complaints, my discomfort with mystery,
my entire willful spirit,
all I grip and refuse to release.

I forget you've given all to me.
To you, Lord, I owe credit.

Everything should be yours; I'll do with that what I will.
But give me (please) your love and grace anyway,
So I learn it is enough.

Amen.

Monday, July 27, 2015

An open letter to couples in the first year of their serious relationship

"Are you ready for the spin cycle, Larry?" "Nope. Are you?"
Photo by Fabrizio Lonzini, Flickr


Dear committed couples who have been together one year or less,

Congratulations! After much searching and wondering and wringing of hands, you have found someone whom you are 99.9% certain you want to spend the rest of your life with. I applaud you for this achievement; it is 50% attributable to your hope, optimism, and smashing good looks, and 50% to fortunate timing.

I can see Year One of your relationship unfolding thus: first a period of intense infatuation where everything you discover about this person is miraculous and enriching; then a period of necessary acclimation where you accommodate your daily rhythms to fit this new addition; and lastly, a period of escalated social activity where you rush to not only introduce your person to everyone you love, but also to meet all of the people your person loves.

It is this third stage I would like to warn you about today.

Perhaps "warn" is too strong a word for a time so precious and fleeting. Precious because you are watching people you'd give your life for all get to know one another and become friends in their own right. Fleeting because amid the scheduling and driving and cross-country flying, you -- the one more wrapped up in making it happen rather than the actual happening -- forget to pause and absorb what you hath so finely wrought.

Perhaps a better word would be "caution." Or "advise." Yes, let's go with advise, seeing as this entire letter is unsolicited anyway. I advise you, dear couples, as you traverse the period I like to refer to as Getting Everyone to Know Everyone as 'Now' Becomes 'Forever,' to stay mindful of three sizable demands on your time:

1. You must grow together as a couple.

You had the first few months all to yourselves -- week after week of happy daydreams and pajama snuggles and a romantic cocoon of your own devising. Prioritizing your relationship was easy because it was exciting and new. Once real life reasserts itself, however, you must put extra effort into carving out that special, undisturbed time where just the two of you can explore what you're creating together. Consider this time together sacred, because so are you to each other -- "dedicated, set apart, [and] exclusively appropriated" (in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary).
 
2. You must maintain your individual relationships as you also build new ones.

Friendship is a gift, one that nurtures and sustains you in different ways than a romantic relationship. Your friends were there with you when you were single, and they (hopefully) will continue to be with you as you add a partner to your life. But just as your romance requires investment, so do your friendships, be they old or new. Know it will not always go smoothly. You will run up against others' expectations or desires, and more often than not their reactions will be out of your control. What you can control, however, is your response. Continue to listen, acknowledge, and ask your friends to do the same for you. I promise, the new normal will emerge.
 
3. You must protect and foster what makes you, you.

No one can complete you. Not your partner. Not your family. Not your friends. They support and encourage and love your soul, but they do not embody it. It is up to you and you alone to tend that essential part of your being. Engage your interests, pursue your goals, deepen your connection to the world around you. Remember to be quiet occasionally, and sit by yourself. Such moments will keep you in touch with what makes your friends cherish you, what makes your lover want you, and what makes you feel exactly like you.

By now you're probably sweating and searching for Xanax beer chocolate. I don't blame you -- each of these demands requires diligent care and feeding, and there are only 24 hours in a day, much of which you must devote to sleep, food, and basic hygiene. So here is my final piece of unsolicited advice:

4. Go easy on yourself.

You are doing the best you humanly can. With that effort at the forefront, you will end up in the right place, even if there are some bumps and tears along the route. And no matter what else happens, remember that you're bound to learn much, much more about your partner, your friends, and yourself.
Godspeed, new(ish) couples. I look forward to seeing you on the flip side. But not too soon.

With love and admiration,

Me


Prayer #289: Falling for You

God of hand-holding and hand-wringing,

Hold me in Yours as I figure out how to be present to myself as well as to those I love. Let me peek through Your fingers and spot when my people are striving to give to me as I am striving to give to them. Caress me when I am anxious; block me when I am injurious. And if You must let me go, let it be so I may continue falling in love -- with him, with her, with them -- all intoxicating reflections of You.

Amen.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Tell us in your own words



There’s a delightful moment in the musical “Guys and Dolls” when self-righteous missionary General Cartwright declaims in operatic tones to gangster Nicely Nicely Johnson, “Tell us in your own words.”

She's referring to the personal story of salvation he's purporting to have. And "tell us" is exactly what Nicely proceeds to do, not just with words, but with rhyme, rhythm, melody, harmony, and a full choreographed dance routine alongside a bunch of sin-riddled gamblers.

Could the character have stated his story simply, a la group therapy? Sure. But this being a Broadway musical, he was beholden by the laws of his theatrical universe to make it big. Different. Memorable. So memorable, in fact, that twenty years after I first listened to the "Guys and Dolls" cast recording in my parents’ car, I can still recite “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” by heart.

Yesterday I channeled a bit of General Cartwright when a poet friend shared how unhappy she was with her verse of late. “I want to be like Robert Frost,” she told me. “He has these perfect images, and he just drops this wisdom in … but everything I write comes out coy or arch.”

“Is that your voice, though? What if instead of fighting it, you embraced it?”

She considered that for half a second. “But I don’t like it. I want to be like Frost.”

I tried again. “But why be a second Frost when you can be a first you? I want to hear your voice. What do you have to say?”

She, however, had none of it. Which means -- to my great sorrow -- that I will have none of her for the foreseeable future. None of her wit, none of her creativity, none of her unique, specific, compelling worldview.

Talk about wasting one's most valuable asset. What do I have if not my own voice? Who else has my exact senses and sensibilities? Who else has my mix of experiences, my list of desires, my raft of dreams? No one. Only me. And for you, only you.

The man who gave us the classic lines "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -- / I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference" would never in a million years want a writer to follow his well-trod path. Let's plot our own instead and explore a wilderness not yet charted.

Prayer #288: My Own Course

Rock your own boat. Plow your own field. Tilt at your own windwills, the ones that in steady thrums claim you cannot defeat them, that you are doomed to stand before them forever, disarmed.

God of voice and character, speak through the conflicted cacophony in my own mind. Endow what I have to say with confidence. Help me leave my windwills far in my past, twirling listlessly against an empty sky, while I carry my message farther than I thought possible.

Amen.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

On the Charleston shootings



Three weeks have passed since Dylann Storm Roof killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, and I cannot stop placing myself in the middle of that Bible study.

Bible studies provide time and space for contemplation. They offer guided meditation, academic exercise, and community bonding, all in one construct. To think that a man, a stranger, sat in the participants' midst for an entire sixty minutes before opening fire boggles my mind. Did the environment of devotion and love move him at all? Did Mother Emanuel's community sway him, even for a second, to reconsider his actions? Did an opportunity for grace present itself to him? Or was he so rotten, so sodden with hate, rage, and pain, that not the smallest chink of light got through?

I will never know, of course, because I am not Dylann Storm Roof. I was not sitting in the church that day listening the words they were poring over. I do not know how hard God was beating against his rib cage, trying to push aside the pitch-dark fury, struggling to reach Roof's core humanity.

But what I can do instead is turn the questions on myself. Whenever the world pours forth such tragedies -- when we can longer turn a blind eye to the worst elements of our shared humanity -- I force myself to ask, "What hate am I carrying? What prejudice? What fear?"

In essence, how am I failing to love?

"Love will always win." Photo by Matt Drobnik, Flickr

Because the one rule above all is love your neighbor as yourself. And it's the #1 rule because it is the most difficult. It both draws on our natural goodness (for yes, I believe people are fundamentally good) and assaults our learned behaviors. So we end up in a constant war within ourselves, nature vs. nurture, joy vs. fear, whisper vs. shout.

Why are we not love to and for each other?

Love your neighbor, even when he is wrong.

Love your neighbor, even when she scares you.

Love your neighbor, even when you hate them.

But guns are easier. More expedient to use. More expedient to blame. When what we must really do is live out love, even if we don't yet feel it.

Prayer #287: No Words

I have no words left
none to ease the pain
none to soothe the grief
none to stop the violence
except for the hardest ones of all:
I love you
I love You
I love.

Amen.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

What the world needs now ... (Do you know the rest?)

Burn, baby. Photo by Mike G, Flickr.

When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace. -- Jimi Hendrix

Last week, I was walking out of the Metro listening to Fr. Paul Dressler's podcast on active, Christ-like love, and there at the escalator exit stood a melancholy man, in about his early 40s, with a container for change and a sign that read, "I have two small boys..."

I can't tell you what the rest said, though, because I ran away before I read the whole thing.

Such profound hypocrisy in my action (or lack thereof). I had just spent twenty minutes learning about Christ's call to pour out love in the hardest of places, to follow the "map of Jesus," and yet when the moment came to transform words into deeds, I choked. Again. Like always, it seems.

In trying to exert power over my surroundings -- in claiming that I don't want to take my wallet out in public, that I don't have money to spare, that I can't verify if my contribution will be used well -- I end up withholding love. Talk about a losing proposition. Even if my claims are justified, why not choose to exert power in a productive way -- say, for example, offer to buy the man food for his family, direct him to local services more equipped than I to help, or simply listen to his story?

Kurt Vonnegut wrote: "A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved." Imagine if I had embodied love in that moment. Imagine if I did so each day. Imagine if you did so each day. What power would we have then? Infinite power. And with it, infinite peace.

Prayer #286: The Power of Love is a Curious Thing

Pure love is a pot belly stove, round and warm, wamp-wamp-wamp, radiating out to all who pass. And like that cozy stove, those who feel the heat do not take it -- they receive it. Absorb it. They are fueled. They burn in turn.

Am I willing to stoke my own flames? As logs turn to ash in service of heat, will I let You consume me, reduce me to my barest elements? Will You strike the match when I cannot? Together, will we -- can we -- burn enough?

Amen.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

What comes from silence

The fog shifts to light ... Photo by Justin Kern, Flickr

HOW TO BE A POET
(to remind myself)


Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill — more of each
than you have — inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

-- Wendell Berry, New Collected Poems (via brainpickings.org)

Some more thoughts on the power of silence:

Prayer #285: "Prayers Prayed Back"

God of the interior third place --

It could be the coffee shop, the bookstore, the pub ... or none of the above. I'm searching for my place, the spot where my mumbling, inchoate pleadings can echo back, as if I were standing in an empty and ancient cathedral laid bare by time, with only enough light to outline the pews where I should be sitting.

Insight (I am slowly understanding) does not come gilded or be-bowed. It does not spring forth fully formed. It does not even arrive large enough to see -- more an accumulation of specks pushing through the fibers in the curtain of silence around me, like peckish moths picking at an overripe snack. I sense I must draw the curtain tighter. Yet not too tight -- just enough to allow the lighted dust.

God of the unpretentious revelation, I will gather the breadcrumbs as You drop them. I will guard them. Arrange them. And when the time is right, I will serve them as a feast made holier by its quiet preparation.

Amen.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The genesis of art

Out of chaos ... Illustration by Patrick Hoesly, Flickr.

Step 1 of today's post: Read this passage (emphasis mine).
In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters.

Then God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. God saw how good the light was. God then separated the light from the darkness. God called the light "day," and the darkness he called "night." Thus evening came, and morning followed -- the first day.

Then God said, "Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters, to separate one body of water from the other." And so it happened: God made the dome, and it separated the water above the dome from the water below it. God called the dome "the sky." Evening came, and morning followed -- the second day.

Then God said, "Let the water under the sky be gathered into a single basin, so that the dry land may appear." And so it happened: the water under the sky was gathered into its basin, and the dry land appeared. God called the dry land "the earth," and the basin of the water he called "the sea." God saw how good it was. Then God said, "Let the earth bring forth vegetation: every kind of plant that bears seed and every kind of fruit tree on earth that bears fruit with its seed in it." And so it happened: the earth brought forth every kind of plant that bears seed and every kind of fruit tree on earth that bears fruit with its seed in it. God saw how good it was. Evening came, and morning followed -- the third day.

Then God said: "Let there be lights in the dome of the sky, to separate day from night. Let them mark the fixed times, the days and the years, and serve as luminaries in the dome of the sky, to shed light upon the earth." And so it happened: God made the two great lights, the greater one to govern the day, and the lesser one to govern the night; and he made the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky, to shed light upon the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. God saw how good it was. Evening came, and morning followed -- the fourth day.

Then God said, "Let the water teem with an abundance of living creatures, and on the earth let birds fly beneath the dome of the sky." And so it happened: God created the great sea monsters and all kinds of swimming creatures with which the water teems, and all kinds of winged birds. God saw how good it was, and God blessed them, saying, "Be fertile, multiply, and fill the water of the seas; and let the birds multiply on the earth." Evening came, and morning followed -- the fifth day.

Then God said, "Let the earth bring forth all kinds of living creatures: cattle, creeping things, and wild animals of all kinds." And so it happened: God made all kinds of wild animals, all kinds of cattle, and all kinds of creeping things of the earth. God saw how good it was. Then God said: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the cattle, and over all the wild animals and all the creatures that crawl on the ground."

God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.

God blessed them, saying: "Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth." God also said: "See, I give you every seed-bearing plant all over the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food; and to all the animals of the land, all the birds of the air, and all the living creatures that crawl on the ground, I give all the green plants for food." And so it happened. God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good. Evening came, and morning followed -- the sixth day.
Step 2: Let's chat.

Stars shining bright above you. Photo by Pippy, Flickr.

So. Why did I just ask you to read Genesis 1:1-31 from the New American Bible? Because if you have ever created something in your life -- wanted to create something, tried to create something, succeeded in creating something -- you have lived this story.

Let me explain. After nearly three years of study, I am in the final phase of my writing degree, the thesis project of which is to put forth a body of publication-worthy fiction. For the next six months, I will wrangle my stories into works of literary genius (read: passable prose), and those works into a collection. By the end of the process, I will graduate from the program, and then I will start submitting these works to the wider world. And on its way to becoming art, each work is living the Genesis story.

Look for a moment at the bolded statements in the passage above. By my count we have six elements that God deems good -- light; earth and sea; vegetation; stars; sea monsters, swimming creatures, and winged birds; and wild animals, cattle, and creeping things. Then God steps back, surveys what he hath wrought, and deems it all very good.

Steps in a process. Photo by Polpolux !!!, Flickr.

To my mind, each element reflects a critical piece of the act of creation -- not the Biblical version of "creation," but rather the creative births that all artists midwife on a regular basis. For example:

  • Light is the spark, the candle in the coal mine, the brief but vivid hint that something bigger, deeper, richer lies ahead if we keep walking.
  • Earth and sea form the foundations that stay firm beneath our feet and carry us in their currents. They are our envelope, the structure that gives us a cyclical, reliable, immutable space in which to play.
  • Vegetation acts as both fuel and cover. It nourishes us when our energy flags and shelters us when our eyelids droop.
  • Stars symbolize our greater compass, the fiery winks that point toward the meaning of our artistic pursuits. Why must this work live, they ask, and why are you the one to bring it forth?
  • Sea monsters, swimming creatures, and winged birds represent wild leaps, flights of fancy, the spasms of imagination that grip us and help us believe that what we're making is fantastic and beautiful.
  • Wild animals, cattle, and creeping things are whatever keeps us grounded. They are the everyday plod, the humble crawl forward, the fight-or-flight instinct that instinctively moves us -- maybe not always in the direction we want, but still, it's movement.
Then, lastly, we look on everything we have made -- our voice, our message, our art -- and we experience a dizzying moment where the steps gel and the work takes on a very good life independent of our own.

If all goes well with my thesis, my words will transform by the end of it into a new world for reader and writer alike. But unlike the humans in Genesis, I won't have dominion over what is created. Rather, I will watch my art walk off alone into a brave new land born of my mind, not ruled by my hand, and greater than the sum of the acts that formed it.


Prayer #284: On the Seventh Day

On the seventh day my work will be complete.
A nap's in order -- we must celebrate!
My work, however, cannot bear to rest.
Created, it must stretch, inhale, and flex --
a strut of strength within a universe
of countless other works. Art, listen up.
Abundance is your fruit; the fact that you
exist at all illuminates your life.
So revel mightily in your array --
your bursting seeds, slow-creeping things, white wings
that beat against your rib cage. Multiply
at will. Dominion's overrated.

Amen.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The procession of grief

Go. Photo by Brian Talbot, Flickr

In a day of GPS, Google maps, and smartphones, why do we still have funeral processions?

I asked myself this on a frigid Friday this past February, as I impatiently tapped the gas pedal of my rental car, stuck in the middle of a long row of vehicle-bound mourners for a dear family friend. My four-ways were flashing; the procession tag was stuck in my dash; my youngest cousin was seated beside me, ready for the ride. Our slated route was set to go through neighborhoods in and around the area where I grew up, places I hadn't considered in decades, much less seen. It should take, the funeral director said through my passenger window, 45 minutes.

The line began to move. I followed suit. Within 10 minutes I saw that this endeavor would likely result in gray hair and/or a totaled car. No matter how closely I paid attention or drew Lamaze-like breaths, I could not get into the nonstop flow. The idea of blowing through red lights scraped against every defensive driving muscle I've ever built up; I either hit the brakes too hard (bouncing my petite cousin against her seatbelt) or left too much room between cars (inviting interruption in the link). The result was a herky-jerky, brake-or-bust stumble through the outskirts of Philadelphia -- a display so inept that my parents called me from their car, one length away, to reiterate the rules of procession.

By the time we arrived at the cemetery, I was stressed and sweating. My poor cousin was an unsavory shade of chartreuse. We both leaped from the car the minute I put it in park, not considering how it appeared to look so over-eager at a graveside.

But we made it there. Together. Even though I'd almost rear-ended my own parents at several points, they were now standing with me and dozens of other mourners, united in mourning and remembrance for someone we loved.

Move toward the exit light. Photo by David Goehring, Flickr

Removed from the jerking car, now able to view it at a safe, still distance, I recognized the funeral procession as the vehicular manifestation of grief and consolation. When you are part of a procession, you are not only driving that single route -- you are also entering a long continuum of suffering that stretches far past your personal experience and winds its way back through every other human who has followed a body to its inevitable final stop. You are moving with others who share your emotions, while allowing people outside your insulated cushion to sacrifice a few moments of their day to make your way a little easier at a difficult time.

My defensive driving, it turns out, was too defensive. I was trying too hard to control a process that required me to let go to be effective. Instead, I should have relaxed into the grief, allowed the current to carry me to the cemetery, to our loved one's side one last time.

The minute the final rites ended, my cousin escaped back to her family's car (understandable), and my mother joined me in the rental. As each car passed the cemetery gate and hit the main road, they scattered, charting their own routes to the hall for luncheon. With no procession to lead us back, I fired up the GPS. I obeyed traffic signals. I followed the automated voice's instructions. And it was not as comforting as I once thought.

Prayer #283: Turn ... Up?

In one hundred feet --
enough distance for you
to scream, stall, stew,
hem, haw, hide,
run, rage (but god forbid
respond) --
turn
right into My arms
and you will reach your
destination.

Amen.

Friday, May 01, 2015

What (not) to do when the world is falling apart

Unraveling. Photo by Populux !!!, Flickr

This week, man.

First came the Nepal earthquake. Then the Baltimore riots. Then the Supreme Court hearings on gay marriage. Then a cold. Then my period. And to tie it all up with a neat red bow, today's unbelievable-but-true event: a structural collapse at my office building.

Are all these events on equal footing? Of course not. Do they all contribute to my deepening sensation of helplessness, confusion, tension, anger, and disbelief? You bet.

What's worse is my growing acknowledgement of a hard truth: I have not been brave. At all. Through any of it. Because what did I do after following a classmate's sobering updates from the ground in Nepal? After reading furious headlines and online battles about Baltimore? After evacuating my building and being sent home for the day, laptop still on at my desk, unsure of when we'd be able to return?

I dusted.

Yes, dusted. I attacked the snow-drift levels of dust coating my bookshelf with ferocious vengeance. I vacuumed the floor in wide, cutting jabs. I wiped off the tchotchkes with furious pressure. Hell, I even cleaned the baseboards, laughing maniacally as I sucked hair and skin and dirt -- the detritus of a life unattended -- into oblivion. That's how eager I was to put energy toward restoring order in my life.

I dusted.

What I did not do was donate to relief efforts. Or drive to Baltimore to call for peaceful responses. Or notify newstations about the collapse. Or even take medicine at the early symptoms. On all these occasions I puttered. Hedged. Avoided. What would I add to the conversation? I thought. How can $10 help? Why shouldn't I look out for my own safety? What do I know about it all, anyway?

I was not brave. I saw my role as insignificant, my contributions as futile, and what I saw became reality.

So I dusted. The world is still a mess, and I am still an emotional wreck, but my room is clean for at least the next few days until it's inevitably not. And then I will have to decide again what course of action to take.


Prayer #282: Easy

How easy to give up.

How easy to ignore. Excuse. Hide.

How easy to claim no responsibility, to throw your hands up against the avalanching world and run, knowing that your puny frame is no match for its force.

How easy. Much easier than the hard work of staying. Much easier than the hard work of contributing. Much easier than the hard work of educating yourself and others, confronting tragedy and injustice, and challenging your beliefs and your faith.

How easy to give up.

Easier still never to start.

To the God who knows my hesitation -- push me, trip me, do whatever You need to do to move me forward, as long as I'm not standing here, suspended, unused.

Amen.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

At the ready: How 2014 prepared me for 2015

Just needs the key. Photo by Sean McGrath, Flickr

I am always ready for guests to come over. The rooms, though never immaculate, are presentable. I have food and drink around to share. The kitchen shades are up, so anyone wandering by can peek inside and think, “That looks homey.” My house, in its imperfect and ordinary way, is in a constant state of readiness -- a state that transforms an address into a home.

As I learned in 2014, the state of my heart can be closer to the state of my home than I knew possible. In the year's first half, I rode a wild pendulum of experiences and emotions, from my grandmother’s death to disappointing romances to three beautiful weddings. I cried on a regular basis -- tears of frustration, sorrow, joy -- and wondered with each nose blow where the pendulum was headed next.

The second half of 2015 turned out to be calmer. I stayed in town more, caught up with friends, settled into schoolwork. As I finally found the time to process and evaluate the first six months of the year, I recognized them as the emotional and mental equivalent of spring cleaning: a scouring purge of closets and baseboards so I could see just how space I really had.

For that’s what opened up in my life -- space to reflect, to contemplate, to appreciate, to acknowledge how much was right in my life. And as I pointed to each good thing and named it as such -- the job where I was learning and growing, the coursework where I was pushing and stretching, the relationships where I was loving and investing -- the space expanded. I was leading a full and joyful life, one with movement in all directions, one where the harder moments were tempered by hope and the shinier ones were polished by gratitude.

I was stable. Receptive. Ready.

Ready 4 ... anything, really. Photo by Kevin Dooley, Flickr


Readiness, it turns out (after my usual OED consultation), covers a spectrum of states. It can be “having a desire or need for something, esp. a source of relief or pleasure.” It can mean you’re “inclined, disposed, or apt to do something.” Or it can mean you’re “willing and eager to act when required -- prompt to oblige.”

That said, I did not truly know I was ready until a thing I was ready for happened. Two months before the end of the year, I fell in love. Fulfillment of a long-held desire? Check. Inclination to act on the opportunity? Check. Immediate promptness in obliging? Check, check, check.

I used to think readiness was strictly overt -- that I could direct preparation only toward particular purposes. But as the life-bound arc of 2014 showed me, readiness can be stealthy too. I can leave my heart close at hand, carry on knowing that it’s beating warmly within arm’s reach, and make myself vulnerable in the best way -- by being more open to whatever comes.

The person I have fallen in love with, by the way, was once a Boy Scout. The Scouts’ motto?

"Be prepared.”


Prayer #281: The Ready Path

Set the table. Pick your outfit. Try not to watch the clock. Guests will be arriving soon, except you don’t know who and you don’t know when, and you think you have enough food, but if it turns out you don’t you can always run to the store for more chips. Chips! You forgot the chips. So now guests will come and you’ll give them everything except chips, but that’s ok because you don’t know what they’re expecting of you anyway, so maybe they won’t even want chips, and what they’ll want instead is to say hello and pawn off unwanted and slightly stale holiday cookies. Cookies are better than chips, anyway. The evening (or morning, or week-long extended stay) will turn out fine if cookies are involved. And if your guests come. Which they will. You think. Pull out more silverware. Pick an alternate outfit. Busy yourself with other items on your list. And ask the God who’s sitting in the dustpan you forgot in the hallway to keep you occupied with good thoughts and brave musings until the doorbell rings.

Amen.