Present Light, Third in a Series

“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” – Nobel Peace Prize recipient, philosopher, physician Albert Schweitzer

Lately I have been making a conscious effort to step out of isolation. In my introversion and my insecurity, I tend to keep myself to myself, to hide my light under a bushel, so to speak. To be honest, I have doubted whether my light was of any value. But i realize it is. It truly is.

So I reached out to my neighbors on Facebook, asking who might be interested in a monthly gathering for the purpose of cultivating authentic friendships, the sort where we can ring on each other’s doorbells if our kids are sick, relationships that extend beyond friendly waves as we pass each other walking our dogs. Not a group for gossip and wine, no, but a company of genuine friends. A handful of neighbors want to embark on this project with me! We’ll see how our experiment goes.

I photographed these street lamps outside Westminster Abbey in London. I was struck by the two lamps standing side-by-side, in such close proximity to each other, as if to lend light not only to the street and its inhabitants, but to each other as well. Like people do. Like my neighbors do. We are light.

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Age: Angst, Ambiguity, Acceptance

I am fifty-two years old. God. Yes, I am fifty-two years old.

I have never said that to anyone except my immediate family. It’s not that anyone couldn’t have done just a little math to figure it out, it’s not a secret. I just haven’t wanted to admit it.

Fifty-two.

And still so completely … unfinished.

Not incomplete– that’s a different thing, implying a belief that I am a living error, a woman missing a vital piece, like a jigsaw puzzle that can’t be glued and mounted in a frame because a corner fell on the floor and was devoured by the family dachshund (I speak from experience on this); a book in which vital chapters of pages have fallen from the binding, like every volume of Harry Potter that our family has owned over the years.

There are no missing pages in my story, all fifty-two years are in there, the book a little frayed at the edges, its pages stained with droplets of Diet Dr. Pepper and dribbles of salty tears.

But my story is definitely unfinished; there is a sense of ambiguity imbuing nearly every aspect of my life right now.

Ambiguity. Apathy. Anxiety. Angst.

The angst has become a crutch for me, a companion in my waking and in my rest; it forces me to repeat over and over every single day a litany of financial debts I wish were paid off, it compels me to scrutinize my body for fat, it necessitates constant and unrelenting worry over my job and whether I want to be in it. When we’re teens, we’re expected to be riddled with this angst. The journals of my adolescence are filled with my looping scrawl, passages of woe and worry, wondering what I was meant to do, who I was meant to be, hearts used to dot my letter “i”s as though a charm to lure love. Then I got married and made babies. I raised them. I raised them well. I stayed in a marriage that grew healthy and strong. Deeply rooted. So why the angst? Why the anxiety? Why the ambivalence? Why, in middle age, do I find myself so crippled by the looming question: what am I supposed to do now?

I fear I have become addicted to the inner drama of that one weighty question. What’s next?

img_0186.jpgOr worse– what if this is it? What if, at fifty-two, I have already accomplished any great thing I might have done? What if it’s too late to write that book or land that dream job? What if all that’s left is spreadsheets about ops and procedures and fees and days of hellacious knee pain and buying jeans a size bigger? What if I don’t have another day? And that, my friends, is why I had to face the truth that is at the core of every truth that matters: There is no guaranteed next. There is only right now. This very moment. This very breath.

Oh, sure, it’s good to make plans. Last evening Libby and I were having fun talking about the wood-forest-creature decorating theme for her baby shower next month, and I definitely need to check my bank balance and see that a couple of bills get paid today. I have already ordered a couple of Christmas gifts and started saving for retirement (way too late, I am sure, but better late than never). I just bought the prettiest yellow mitten/beanie/scarf set at Target just in case it ever gets cold in Houston again.

But really, it’s just the right now that is mine.

When I was a first-year teacher, preparing for my first lessons and decorating my first classroom, I spent hours cutting out little laminated shapes for our classroom calendar. Our university had drilled into its teacher prep students that buying ready-made bulletin boards was a cop-out, so I was diligently doing what I believed demonstrated my commitment to my students’ education. My one-year-old would stand, wobbly on her feet in front of me, arms outstretched, and I’d brush her off and keep working. My mother in law, sitting nearby, wisely said, “Kim, you’re only going to have these hugs from her for a little while. Think about putting down the laminated shapes and hold your child.” Good advice. I was missing the now of my toddler for the tomorrow of my classroom. I think it’s easier for us to grasp that lesson when it’s the lives of our children at stake. But I would like to walk this a step farther: our own lives are worth that consideration, too. The beauty of our own journeys as human women and men is as worth intentional presence as are the moments with our babies.

It’s what I have been learning very, very recently. This week, even. We’re raised, from infancy, to look forward. To know what we want to do for a job when we’re five years old. To choose a college track when we’re thirteen. To always strive forward, look ahead. And while that can be good, can propel us to invention and innovation, it can also be demoralizing. To always and ever push forward is out of balance. That skewed way of living can rob us of the joy that is found in being fully present in each moment as it is lived. Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle says:

“Most humans are never fully present in the now, because unconsciously they believe that the next moment must be more important than this one. But then you miss your whole life, which is never not now.”

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Photo by Kim Bryant, NYC Metropolitan Museum of Art

I recently spent ten hours listening to Tolle teach about this principle, and it was tough to grasp at first. How do I lead an organized life and do excellent work if I am only in the now, just contemplating the present moment? But that’s not what I think he means. I need to set goals and move toward them, but always stay rooted in the beauty or pain that is now. I must notice the smiles of my loved ones, acknowledge the needs of my physical body, savor the sip of white wine, take a moment to feel sun on my face, and listen to the sound of my breath as it fills, then leaves, my lungs; all ways to remain present. But it’s okay to dream about the future, too.

To dream without anxiety is the key. Worry and angst rob me of joy in the now, and they are as addictive and habitual as any chemical. But learning to stay present, connected to my own spirit and to the greater universal Divine is so much better. Already this morning, I have walked the baby while taking in the beautiful sunlight and cooler autumn air (Houston’s temperature finally dropped below 90 degrees yesterday), enjoyed some sparkling water, and answered some work emails. All without angst. All without worry. Without anxiety.

To live this way will take practice. It will call for thought and accountability. It will require surrender to what is balanced with a willingness to look for what can be. 

This, my friends, is where freedom lies. In each moment lived, one by one by one.

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“Everything Becomes Magical.”

That’s what life coach extraordinaire Martha Beck says. She says when you find your purpose, when you listen to your heart, everything becomes magical.

What I am learning this minute, this second is that finding your purpose is a winding road; purpose can evolve; at least it has for me. I am surrounded by theatre teachers today, sitting in the exhibit hall of a hotel while gregarious, committed women and men equip themselves for a new school year of inspiring kids to create, perform, and design. These educators are full of joy and intention.

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That’s me on the left, directing my high school vampires to attack Harker in “Dracula,” 2007

I was once like them. This is my umpteenth conference, but I used to attend as a teacher. Attending my first convention in 2001,  I was starry-eyed, thrilled to be teaching in a field that so closely mirrored my own passion for storytelling. I attended workshops without stopping for food, from the first class in the early morning until the last one after dinner. I took everything I learned about improv and projection and creating special effect makeup back to my junior high and then high school classrooms and stages, and there were days I’d say to my students as we started rehearsal, “I can’t believe I get paid to do this.” I knew my purpose. It was clear: to teach theatre and equip students for creativity, yes, but more it was to be someone who loved kids. But I couldn’t sustain. I couldn’t go the distance. The grind of the schedule, the needs of the adolescent students, and the antagonism of a new administrator wore me down until I was a shadow of myself. So I fled to the world of the Renaissance Festival, where I’d been a seasonal entertainer for a long time. In that office, my purpose became to provide support for teachers who were creating learning opportunities and to advocate for the artists who show their wares at the festival. For five years I have navigated the unexpectedly turbulent waters and now the job where I first found respite seems no longer to be the right place to be. My spirit began to nudge me to look afield for a new place to work. I am a person whose spirit needs to feel called to what she does to earn her keep. I know not everyone is wired that way, but I am.

I recently finished an unexpected series of interviews with the Disney Corporation for the second September in a row; though it ultimately did not pan out, it did get me thinking: to work in a magical place, a Magic Kingdom that embraces and sets the standard for best practices, seemed the perfect place for my spirit. Creativity, stability, excellence, and magic call me.

When I was young, I sensed it sometimes. Even in the household where I struggled to feel safe and nurtured, my introverted little dreaming heart searched for magic and longed for purpose.

I donned it in the form of a green tulle prom dress that I bought with good behavior coupons in Mrs. Hoover’s second-grade classroom. When I wore that gown, nothing ugly or lonely could touch me. I was beautiful, I sang and danced. I was fully myself.

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I felt it in my grandmother’s June’s attic in New Mexico, my own wishing place, just like Louisa May Alcott’s March girls. I played dress-up and danced, wrote stories and read books while the sun streamed in the dormer window.

I stitched it when sitting on the daybed in my grandmother Juanita’s bedroom, I cut and sewed scraps of fabric to make clothing for dolls while she hummed hymns and made garments for the women of west Texas. More, I carried it in every stitch of clothing she ever made me.

I earned it with every report card A and spelling bee trophy, and there were many, evidence of my commitment to be better, to excel.

I became it when I walked down the aisle with my father, the Sound of Music wedding march ringing all around me as I married my husband.

I birthed it each time I pushed a child out of my body then held him or her close.

I created it when I realized that solitude is a gift, that being alone can be healing.

And yet … and yet. Amid all those moments of magic tucked away in my heart, I still feel lost. Without a clear purpose. Recently, I had thought it might be to return to the theatre classroom, but multiple applications around the area didn’t provide a teaching contract. So that’s not it. Nor was Disney, to my great disappointment. I love to write, but there is an infinite number of moments when I find myself debating whether my writing merits a broader reach beyond sweet family and supportive friends. What is the why of my writing? Who is it for?  Who even bothers to read? And here’s a secret revealed: I want to find a purpose that is beyond caring for my grandkids or being the wife of an admittedly great guy. I yearn for an identity and a purpose that is solely my own. I  love my husband, my kids, my grandbaby. But I want work that is my own. In that, I am a true woman of my generation. Our mothers didn’t question that family was all and enough. Our daughters don’t doubt that they can do both or neither.

Waiting is hard. Stillness is excruciating. Hitting the pause button on the deep inner heart while still going through all the busy motions of earning a living, doing dishes, and nurturing relationships feels nigh impossible, even and especially when you deeply and truly love the ones you are surrounded by. To love family well is its own purpose, its own commitment. It’s just that for me, it’s not enough.

Waiting is what I must do. I don’t believe I am the only one living this quandary. Many people in my little sphere seem to be fully confident of where they are and where they’re headed. And for some of them, it’s true. They do know. But I bet others are faking it, just like I am. In the musical Little Women, Jo March, she of shared attic magic, sings of her need to find her purpose, her way:

“There’s a life
That I am meant to lead
A life like nothing I have known
I can feel it
And it’s far from here
I’ve got to find it on my own
Even now I feel its heat upon my skin.
A life of passion that pulls me from within,
A life that I am aching to begin.
There must be somewhere I can be
Astonishing.”

Though I am unclear whether the life I need will take me any farther than the literal road between Houston and Austin, I am certain that something will call to me soon. Some purpose is going to make itself known; so I am going stay soft and spiritually open, to keep listening to the breezes that just might bring a little whispering hint of what I need to do and where I need to go. I think the Divine One has things to tell me. I just hope I recognize when She does.

Do you know your purpose? I would love to know what yours is!

I found this wonderfully helpful article about tools and strategies for finding one’s own unique purpose:

How to Find Your Purpose

 

 

 

Playing Church

When I was a little girl back in the mid-1970s, my brothers and I visited my grandparents during summers in dusty, windy Lubbock, Texas.

My grandmother was a professional seamstress and my grandfather was a carpenter, these were folks who made their living with their hands. Salt-of-the-earth people. Humble people. Wonderful people.

 

There wasn’t money for lavish entertainments when we visited, and my grandmother was always in the middle of sewing for paying customers, so our play was very simple. Simple and quite wonderful. In the cabinet where toys lived was a Dennis the Menace doll that I always played with, I am pretty sure it belonged to my father when he was a boy, or maybe one of his little sisters.  A can of Lincoln Logs kept me busily occupied, the can was of cardboard with a tin lid, they rattled and shook within that canister, letting us know that they were ready to build. There were board games and puzzles and paddle balls, lawn croquet was a favorite. I loved the way my grandmother said the word, “Wicket.” Her head kind of wiggled almost imperceptibly and her consonants were eloquently crisp.

 

But the game I remember best was when we “played church.”

It was always at Grandmother’s suggestion, but I didn’t mind. I was a little girl who loved church. My grandparents’ church was a beautiful one, with a sanctuary awash in sunlight. It was open and airy, with acoustics that made the robust a cappella singing that is the hallmark of my tradition reverberate through one’s chest and very heart. I remember Bible stories told on felt boards and enacted with puppets and singing “Roll the Gospel Chariot Along” with exuberance, running right over that old Devil with my tiny, righteous fists. There was a gentleman who kept his jacket pockets full of peppermints each Sunday morning so that the little ones in the congregation could slip their hands in for a treat and a sweet smile.

Back yard church was warm, the air sweet and juicy with the scent of my grandmother’s muscat grapes ripening on their vines. Bugs buzzed around our heads, as cicadas chirped an accompaniment to my song leading and preaching. My congregants were my two little brothers and some dolls; Grandmother fetched aluminum pie plates from the cupboard and set a handful of saltine crackers in them, and we were given a jelly glass of grape juice. With these sacraments in place, we passed the plates and imagined we were partaking of the body of Jesus.

I remember feeling loved and sensing God in those moments. It was a sweet game, a pretend with nothing but the purest heart of a little girl at its nucleus. Perhaps these memories are why I feel most in tune with the Divine One when outside, or in a small home church instead of in a building. Quiet worship suits me best.

Lots of folks “play” at church as adults, but their games are not genuine and wholesome. For too many, their faiths are not conduits to a true experience of God, they are instead a set of criteria, like chess rules, that are used to manipulate others into fear and compliance. Sometimes, the game-players strenuously clamber over others to be king-of-the-mountain, instead of walking in the shadowy low places, where humans hurt. The draw of the powerful is, to these churchgoers, more alluring than the ache of the broken and disenfranchised.

broken_cross_by_cantabrigianWe are, of course, seeing this play out on a national level, and our country is cracking under the pressure. There are politicians and public figures who are donning masks of piety, fooling some into believing there is no rot behind the facade. That matters, oh yes, it does.

It matters down here where the regular folk live, in church organizations where members play “politics-by-tithe,” more money is spent on smart lights or interior designers than on feeding the poor, or just plain old kindness is a rarer and rarer commodity. I don’t think that the problem in America is that we need more Christians, I think we need kinder Christians.

Put simply, faith is about kindness. It is “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” It is “Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence.” It is “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.”

I know I am imperfect in this. I sometimes speak cruelly. I often miss chances to serve, sometimes because I don’t realize, but also sometimes because I am just not into it.I can really screw this thing up.

There are days when I wish I could turn back the clock to when I was nine years old, confidently waving my arm back and forth as I sang “Blue Skies and Rainbows.” But I can’t. No, I just try to keep my soul connected to the One who matters. I watch and listen for Christians who aren’t playing games, who use the tenets of their faith to nurture, not needle. And I remember my sweet grandmother, her grapes, and pie plates of crisp, salty crackers.

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Short and Sweet: Connection

I love this sentiment, and had to snap a photo of it immediately upon discovery.

Yesterday, the cathedral at Notre’ Dame burned, thankfully not beyond repair, and in the news coverage, I breathlessly witnessed people from all over the world sending prayers and love and hope; not only for the church itself, but for the citizens of Paris, for whom the Lady is such a symbol of art and eternity.

We are connected. Each of us is somehow connected in spirit to humans, to animals, to Earth. To the Divine One.

Namaste’.

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Weary. Tired. Drained. Energized.

Tired are my feet, that felt today the pavement;
Tired are my ears, that heard of tragic things-
Tired are my eyes, that saw so much enslavement;
Only my voice is not too tired. It sings.”
― Aaron Kramer

One of the things I am discovering as I hit middle age is that I am tired. All the time. So, so tired. I am in the middle of “The Change,” that may be part of it. Hormones are preventing sleep at night, so I’d really rather hunker down and read a book when I should be doing tasks around the house. I have to have a debate with myself when I need to go out and work on my flowerbeds:

Does it matter? (Yes.)

Who’ll notice? (The Neighbors.)

But it makes my back hurt and my hands ache! (It’ll burn calories and build muscle, take a Tylenol and rub down with Father Thyme balm.)

Flowers and fertilizer are expensive. (Think of the bees.)

Now that I live in a house with a sprinkler system and no longer have to schlep around a water hose in the heat, there really is no excuse to ignore my flower beds. I actually love digging in the dirt, and I love how the beds look when I pull into my driveway surrounded by marigolds and geraniums. It’s just the damn exhaustion. My inertia is magnificent in its…lack of ert.

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I do keep doing what needs to be done…for the most part. A couple of Diet Dr. Peppers each day keep me moving: I am teaching three college classes in addition to my full time job, exercising 4-5 days a week, making sure laundry is done, dogs get walked, grandbaby gets babysat, etc. I recently applied to volunteer at our local women’s shelter, which will be an added obligation on the agenda; but I have a feeling it will give me some perspective on what exhaustion of the spirit looks like. Menopausal fatigue can’t compare to that.

But today…I am weary of something else. This morning, when my husband turned on the news, we were gut punched with the news of another hate crime, this time a shooting in New Zealand, a country that hasn’t had a mass shooting in around thirty years. It’s on the other side of the world from my Texas home, but our globalization means that we are all connected. We are all, no matter our country, children of God.

I say this to the conservative members of my family (that’s most of the clan).

I say this to the progressives in my family (there are a handful of us intrepid souls).

I say this to friends, I don’t care where you fall on the political values spectrum.

I say this to colleagues.

I say this to strangers:

We cannot afford to go on this way.

What we say matters. About a month ago, I wrote about the conudrum we face when we try to have productive political discussions. We seem not to listen with any intent to discover, we just wait for the other person to take a breath so that we can insert our own opinion. I wondered if it was worth the effort and the risk of lost relationships. I thought maybe I should just start silencing my own self, keeping my worries and judgements and questions stifled. For the sake of peace.

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Last evening, I happened upon a conversation on a friend’s Facebook wall, and my friend, a progressive, was trying to understand and connect with an old friend of his that had gone on a lengthy multi-post tirade against Muslims. No one could get this man to understand that the religion of Islam, the Quran, doesn’t teach the extreme hate that he believes it does. Several people tried to get him to understand that most, overwhelmingly most, Muslims are peaceful folks who just want to live a life of joy with their families. The thread hurt my heart. Then I woke up to hear about a white supremacist shooting up two houses of Islamic mosques; and I wanted to go back to that post, to that man, and challenge him. Because his own hatred was the sort that cost at least 49 people their lives yesterday as they were mowed down in their houses of prayer.

This vitriol isn’t targeted only at Muslims. Yesterday afternoon, an insurance agent on Facebook’s marketplace used a thoroughly disturbing and inappropriate photo of a fatal car crash to sell insurance policies, and joked about traveling to Mexico. When someone questioned her wording, a cascade of fury and hate was spewed at any and all Mexicans. It turned my stomach to read the posts, because I realize that I am, without knowing it, walking among racists each and every day.

These conversations do matter. They are the climate where intolerance and bigotry foment. Social media is the new public square, and what we say and allow to be said incites. Provokes. Inflames.

Chips away at our hearts.

Voices of reason are required. Gentle voices, yes. But not always.  Those of us who are tolerant and empathetic, who see the humanity in people of different colors and faiths, may be hamstrung by the belief that we must ever and always be benign. Moderate. Though the cause of kindness will not be served by hatred and venomous speech, it won’t be served by silent compliance, either. A polite “please” will not expose and root out hatred in hearts.

I am tired, yes. But I am more tired of shootings, of crying children, and of words of prejudice masked as patriotism excused as free speech than I am of anything else in this mess. I believe, with all my heart, that women are going to have to be the impetus for change on this. Men like my husband, who had tears in his eyes this morning, do grieve. And I have encountered women who are as bitter as anyone could be. But if the compassionate and open-hearted women who have been silent for so long will add their voices to the conversation, and will make allies of like-minded men, perhaps love can prevail.

The women I admire in the public eye (Glennon Doyle, Liz Gilbert, Brene’ Brown, Michelle Obama, Malala Yousafzai) have spoken over and over about putting kindness, bravery, and justice into the world. They have big platforms, they speak on television and their podcasts have thousands of subscribers, they’re invited to speak in full coliseums and their books line shelves. Those women are capable of inspiring enormous change. Their scope makes me feel insignificant. Powerless. But I am not.

My voice is small. My reach is tiny. My following is negligible. But by god, I am going to keep trying. I am going to continue combating negative with positive. I will strive for healing. I will take the high road, though I may not be a tranquil traveler upon it. And I will speak. I promise to do it with respect, though maybe not with my best manners. I will speak. And I will act. I will contribute money, I will march, I will write, I will befriend, I will advocate, I will send letters. It’s going to take actions both large and small to right the ship. I’ll just add a Diet DP to my daily intake to stay awake and get “woke.”

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I’m Outa Here.

Fruit Salad, Laundry Soap, and Evolving Faith

It has long been my practice to write small observations about the little magic moments found in daily life. I try to keep mind and heart open to signals that the Universe, or God if you prefer (perhaps even Goddess), places in my path; sometimes connected to what I see in nature, perhaps a song, or a memory. For months I have been bumping into Frankenstein author Mary Shelley in such random and frequent encounters that I decided the Universe has something to say to me through her life and work. Based on beloved author Liz Gilbert’s MO I bought a biography to read and started an index card file for research about Shelley’s life and work. Someday, maybe it will be a book.

Today, the signal is all about the Fruit of the Spirit (I capitalize because sometime in my distant past a preacher instructed that this phrase is a proper noun, and so must be appropriately capitalized- I have no clue of the veracity of said pulpit-granted grammar lesson).

I don’t really know why, but I was singing the old vacation Bible school song about the Fruit just a day or so ago. While standing in the shower, my mind chanted them all, with the little melody:

Love

Joy

Peace

Patience

Kindness

Goodness

Faithfulness

Gentleness

Self Control.

I remember another sermon in which a pedantic preacher spent a ridiculous amount of my Earth time parsing whether the Fruit was singular or plural, his point being that they were a collective, and that you’d better excel at all equally if you wanted to be in God’s good graces.

Sometimes we major in minors, yes?

This morning, after my recent reminiscence of the Sunday School ditty, I was scrolling through Facebook and two friends’ posts showed up consecutively with the Galatians scripture embedded in lovely green graphics. Same verse, identical color scheme, different art.

A signal, I think. This may not head where you’re expecting, by the way.

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For, you see, I consider myself a “Recovering Christian.” I grew up in a conservative evangelical tradition, where adherence to scripture was valued (which can be great), but what adherence meant was subject to a preacher’s interpretation (which can be awful). It was drilled into my heart and mind from the time I was very small that it was my duty to save souls. The church had mounted Matthew 28:19 above the exit doors, admonishing us as we left the carpeted lobby to head among the heathen masses:

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

I carried with me a deep fear and painful guilt that I was supposed to offer Jesus and the church’s “Five Steps of Salvation” process to every single person I met, and for an introverted soul who deeply wanted to please both Jesus and my church leadership that was an unbearable burden. I stumbled through some door-knocking, invited kids in the neighborhood to Bible class, stammered through opening conversations about Jesus with school friends. Scary. Through junior high and high school, I struggled with one-one-one evangelism, and slid right on into college that way. In my small private church college, it was a little easier. Pretty much everyone was already a baptized believer; but I was introduced to a new gospel: the gospel of Amway.

“Do you know anyone who might be interested in making a couple extra thousand dollars a month working 8 to 10 hours a week?”

“I was wondering if you could give me your opinion on a business I’m looking at. I really value your opinion and could use your input.”

“Well, sure, we do sell Amway products, but that’s only about 20% of what we sell. Everything else comes from over 2,000 other companies, most of which are ‘Fortune 500’.”

I fell in love with a boy who did Amway. He had signed up before we met. Here’s how it went:

Respected college professor was supplementing his small Christian college salary with the multi-level-marketing scheme (and who can blame him, really?), got his son involved, his son approached Travis. Travis, being a people-pleaser, said “Sure!” And so our first six years of marriage were spent trying to make this crazy thing work.

I mean, it does work for some people. It does. Good grief, our current Secretary of Education bought her way into the Presidential cabinet with her Amway family fortune.

Amway

Amway provided an automatic circle of friends, which was really cool for this introverted young woman. We gathered for weekly meetings to account for progress, sat together at church, enjoyed monthly potluck suppers. We attended conventions at semi-fancy hotels and paid registration and room fees that we didn’t have the money for (but it was an investment in our future so our sponsor helped justify it). Attendees sang patriotic songs- several times I delivered Sandi Patty’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” to open the festivities- flags were waving, tears were shed. Many wore red, white, and blue. There was lots of testifying about how the Lord had blessed our endeavors. Guest speakers dangled tempting photos of tropical vacations and reminded us how much easier it is to tithe when you’re rolling in the big bucks, part of the allure of the health and wealth gospel. The pain of it, even now, is that love for Jesus, love for country, and love for wealth were so enmeshed that my faith became clouded. It’s easy for that to happen when you somehow believe that God is going to bless you with cash if you just keep working the plan; then He doesn’t. The Fruit of the Spirit had a hard time flourishing in the garden of my troubled heart.

Amway nearly destroyed us. It really, really did. There was an underlying message that if you truly loved your family, you would overcome your discomfort and approach everyone about joining you, so there we were, twenty-ish years old, both with horrible self-confidence issues, trying to pay bills and buy shoes for the baby, and honestly no credibility whatsoever. I did what I was told I should and kept reminding Trav to make the phone calls. He called, usually without success, and became discouraged, which I interpreted as “You don’t love me and our daughter enough to overcome your discomfort” and I wouldn’t make the calls myself because I was an introvert, dammit, and besides it’s the man’s job to provide for the family (I tell you- I was a different person then). We would consider bailing on the whole thing, then he would say he did want to keep it up, so the whole cycle would begin anew.

Then there’s the whole recruitment thing. I don’t make new friends easily these days. I didn’t back then, either. I would meet a lady and think she might make an awesome friend, but I would either spoil it by using an Amway approach line, thereby cutting off all hope of future conversations, or I would just chicken out and not approach at all because I knew that at some point I would have to bring up Amway.

Travis and I didn’t trust each other, we didn’t trust ourselves, we spent money that should have been spent feeding our child on extra products or convention tickets, we risked friendships. Our marriage nearly caved. We watched another couple in our group disintegrate under the pressure, that was when we knew we couldn’t do it anymore. We confessed to our sponsors, and they lovingly told us that if they had known how we were struggling, they would have helped. They would have advised us differently.

So here’s my takeaway from Amway: I was not living a life, nor setting goals, that were true to my real self. I didn’t know who that self was just yet, so I let other people define it. I spoke affirmations that I now know were in complete contradiction to my deepest nature. I dressed like and aligned my politics and religion with those peers, I played tapes about building a business when I wish I had listened to music instead. I paid babysitters and gave up valuable evenings with my sweet little ones, all so that I could sit in strangers’ living rooms trying to sell them the dream and a starter kit.

Amway wasn’t for me. Around my fortieth birthday I realized church wasn’t for me, either. The church, like Amway, nearly destroyed us as well. Stories for another day. But authentic friendships? For sure. The rabbi Jesus? Absolutely. These days, I share a different good news; which is that we are all capable of meeting the Divine One in our own way, in our own time. No church or preacher required, though I know that many, many people find great joy in both of those things. But you know what is needed, sorely needed, in our world? Those Fruits. I believe that when we spend time where the Divine One resides, we cultivate love, joy, peace, and patience. We harvest kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.

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Now that I am fifty-one, I don’t quite follow the rules of the 1970s little girl Christian that I was, nor do I adhere to the 1980s dutiful Amway salesperson. When I was a youth, I recited, “See and save. Seek. Save.” In the Amway days, my mantra was “books, tapes, and meetings.” Now, it’s “Be still. Be still. Be…still.” I know which one resonates deeply with my soul, and I won’t let even the promise of a yacht or my own island in the Caribbean move me from it again.

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Short and Sweet: Vinyl LPs

My generation, the oft-forgotten Xers, grew up with vinyl albums. I had a small collection when I was a little girl: the soundtrack to The Sound of Music, Barbra Joan Streisand, Barbra Live in Concert at the Forum, and the original concept album of Jesus Christ Superstar. Unusual for a six year old, I admit.

While visiting NYC in 2008, I saw this revival of Gypsy with my son on a day when Ms. LuPone had to perform in her house slippers due to a foot injury. Even in her fuzzies, she brought the house down as beleaguered Mama Rose. My son bought me this record, I love to sit and listen on the leather recliner when my husband isn’t home.

Music is an enchantment. Story is great magic. Solitude is a gift. And the love of my son is priceless.

What’s your favorite song?

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Abortion Meets Compassion

About five years ago, I decided to reshape my life. A mental health scare coupled with spinal injury and vocal cord paralysis may bring on the overwhelming need for change, I suppose. When the you-know-what hits the fan in pretty much every area of your life, it’s time to re-evaluate what you believe.

And I decided to believe in compassion; compassion for my own self, and compassion for others. Even, maybe especially, others who make different choices from the ones I would.

That sounds easy, right? Not always, my friend. Nowhere even close. Living a life driven by empathy can sometimes wound. It can occasionally wear you down.

Last night, I had a bit of a rough start to my evening. I was rushing from my full time job in an office to my part time job as a college professor. Traffic had been light, so I had a few minutes to sit in my car and eat an apple while checking in on social media.

Thanks, Facebook.

Here lately, because of a case in New York, there’s been a lot of talk about late term abortions. Talk that hurts.

If you know me at all, if you have heard my story or read my blog, you know that I used to be a devout Christian. I was raised in church. I won the Bible Bee at church camp in sixth grade, I studied Bible at Lubbock and Abilene Christian Universities, I counseled at camp, I spent seven years as a youth minister’s wife, I created the Sunday School curriculum for our entire church in Oklahoma. I physically helped to baptize two of my children. I stood in the shade of my husband’s sunlight, as a good Christian wife was meant to do. I stayed home raising babies as much as possible.

I just love it when a stranger on social media calls me both an “atheist” and an “idiot” in the same sentence before going on to trumpet their own Jesus faith. Pffft. Silly, silly man. Jesus and I go back a long, long way.

In my youth, both spiritual and emotional, I believed all the things a Christian is supposed to believe when it comes to politics. What was it Paul said? When I was young, I spoke like a child…etc.?

In the current American climate, I have come to suppose there are three weighty issues that fuse faith with politics; one’s stance on a wall to keep out illegal brown people is now tied with opposition to abortion for top priority. Putting mandated Christian prayer back into schools seems a distant third.

I only want to talk about abortion though. And how it changes the way people relate to each other.

First, let me get this out of the way: I believe abortion is a tragedy. Always. I never, ever think it’s a thing to celebrate.

When I was eighteen, I was resolute in my understanding that abortion was a sin. An unforgivable sin. So very sure. It was what my preacher taught, and it made sense. Precious sweet embryos need protection. They need a chance to live. They are dear. It was, in my young and certain mind, a black and white issue. “Thou Shalt Not Kill.”

Then a friend, I’ll call her Cindy, found herself pregnant. She had been a fringe youth group girl, we hung out some at devotionals and trips to putt putt, but we went to different high schools. We weren’t close. To be honest, it surprised me when she came to me, imploring me to take her to the abortion clinic in Dallas. I didn’t have a car, but she just needed me to drive her home, in her car.

No one else would help her. She told me then that she felt she could trust me. That I would keep her secret. That I could forgive her. Friends, sisters, that was a crucial moment. I could have condemned her like all her other friends had done. I could have told her she should have just kept her legs closed.

But I thought of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. How he knelt, how he refused to condemn her. How he said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Cindy had been abandoned by pharisees. She needed me to be Jesus. So I took her to the clinic.

I don’t know what I expected, maybe a shadowy, filthy room with cobwebs hanging in the corners and an upside down crucifix suspended over a stone altar engraved with a pentagram? Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” playing backwards over the sound system while men wearing butcher’s aprons cavorted in glee as they worked over the poor women? I was scared to walk into the clinic, though. It turned out to be a well lit, clean doctor’s office. It looked like the same place I had visited my entire childhood to get antibiotics, vaccinations, and lollipops. Cindy ached after it was over. She didn’t cry, but she was very, very, quiet. I got her home and tucked in to her bed, surrounded by stuffed animals.

Just six months later, another close friend had a secret abortion. Pretty much the same reason, and secret because of the derision she knew would be heaped on her. We attended a private Christian college, and sexual purity was literally a requirement for continued attendance at school. The appearance of chastity was the price of admission to our social life. She could not bear the shame, and she would not stigmatize her family.

Did Jesus ever reproach women who were suffering with shame, even if their sin was sexual? Did he ever, ever put limitations on the blessing he offered? I’ll stake my life, there’s no instance in which he ever imposed boundaries on the gift of grace and compassion to hurting people. Self righteous pharisees? Yes. But not hurting people.

Not being Jesus, I still struggled, though. I ached in my soul to think of lives not lived. Embryos terminated. I knew what church taught. The Bible is not specific about this particular situation, and so one has to decide if its prohibition of murder is applicable. I asked my mother in law about it, and was surprised to hear her own thoughts. She supported keeping abortion legal. Surprised is too mild a word, really. I was stunned.

My MIL reasoned that women would have abortions. Period. Always had. Always would. In her heart and mind, to allow a woman to perish due to a misplaced, jagged coat hanger causing uncontrolled hemorrhage was as vile an outcome as the other. To my mother in law, the woman’s life and safety was precious and also worth protection. Pragmatism, yes. Compassion for women? Definitely yes.

I remind you, in case you’ve forgotten the bit I wrote at the top- I think abortion is a tragedy.

In my early 30s, I was staying at a beach house with a group of relatively new friends, and as the night progressed, we started talking about abortions. Several of my friends had had them. Different ages, circumstances, responses, faiths. I began to understand, to really get it: it is possible to have compassion for all the people in the scenario. And in the time that has passed since that night, I have learned of more friends, students, and even family who have trod that lonely sidewalk into the clinic. I don’t think any of us are truly untouched by it.

So that’s the way I have approached the abortion issue since that night. I utterly and unequivocably refuse to sit in judgement of a woman who feels she must have an abortion.

I understand why some people can’t condone the act. I really do. Nevertheless, I believe with all my soul that my heart contains enough compassion for both mother and lost child. Our hearts hold limitless love. It is only when we choose to wall off that love that we cannot meet people in their need.

You know what I don’t understand? When some of those same, supposed Christian warriors call me names. Like “Idiot.” or “Atheist.”

It is incomprehensible to imagine Jesus talking to me like that. It is unfathomable to put Jesus on a street corner shouting obscenities at wounded women entering clinics. And yet, for some, it is their MO. It’s how, in their sense of righteous indignation, they’ve decided to win the race to climb Morality Mountain. They’ve forgotten though, that Jesus isn’t up there. He’s down in the valley, loving on the hurting folks. Even the women who have chosen to abort a child. And so I must, too.

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