Depleted, I Pause: A Devotional for the Weary

It’s month three of a global pandemic, and I am depleted. Rusty, dark, creaky of soul and bone as a recently diagnosed (but not only recently experienced) autoimmune disorder slows my body while my heart and brain try to process fear of disease, fury at racial injustice not only for black people but for the brown people held in cages at my state’s border, and a tendency toward fatalistic distrust in my government’s leadership in the face of so much turmoil, injustice, and ache.

With my head lying on my arms, sobbing at my desk, I realize I will only survive with spirit intact if I stop relying on my own wisdom to replenish and sustain. That tactic, in isolation, is so much spraying bright paint on a rusty bike, hoping to just coat the battered frame underneath with a sparkle of glossy color.

And so I have been reading, listening, and observing while tucked into my tiny camper in the woods or sitting on my screened-in sunporch (ah, what privilege to even have such places). This week, I am not sharing my own deep thoughts, I am sharing from those whose work is enabling me to stay on the path of a beautiful, rich, magical life, though for the moment I am just plopped down in the dirt of it, not going anywhere. I don’t expect the wisdom of others to shine me up, in fact, I am no longer sure that’s even the goal. No, I hope rather for lubrication of my spiritual frame, a juicy-ness added to my soul. Perhaps part of growing older is accepting that the vehicle is showing signs of wear, but choosing to move forward anyway.

“In God, we live and move and have our being.” Acts 17:28, the New Testament

“We all get shit wrong…The question is: have you built the capacity to care more about others than you care about your own ego?” Austin Channing Brown, author of I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, to Brene Brown on her podcast “Unlocking Us.”

“Despair is the fear that tomorrow will be just like today.” Rob Bell, author of Love Wins

“I tried to imagine a church that did not support its country’s wars as a matter of patriotic course and instead stood against the devastation and suffering they caused in people’s lives.” Sue Monk Kidd, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter

“For the universe is full of radiant suggestion…Over and over in the butterfly we see the idea of transcendence. In the forest we see not the inert but the aspiring. In water that departs forever and forever returns, we experience eternity.” Mary Oliver, Upstream

“I’ve got a dream!” Rapunzel, Tangled

“I’ve got these conditions—anxiety, depression, addiction—and they almost killed me. But they are also my superpowers. The sensitivity that led me to addiction is the same sensitivity that makes me a really good artist. The anxiety that makes it difficult to exist in my own skin also makes it difficult to exist in a world where so many people are in so much pain—and that makes me a relentless activist. The fire that burned me up for the first half of my life is the exact same fire I’m using now to light up the world.” Glennon Doyle, Untamed

“Da! Wow-wow! Thhhhhhh? Woooo!” Hazel Fernandez, 18-month Queen of our Household

And with those words that I am certain are full of the toddler wisdom that so thoroughly lives in the present moment, I say blessings and peace to all who read. May your day, filled with both light and shadow, be lavish in love. Namaste’.

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From Silenced by Church to Outspoken Advocate: A Feminine Journey

My eldest child, a woman of 31 years, is a rocking Social Justice Warrior, and I couldn’t be prouder. She is one aspect of the woman I wanted to be, a woman who had the courage to strike out on her own path early. Bravely. And with enough humility to learn what she didn’t know. She is learning daily to listen; she’s teaching me to listen, too. Her causes are civil rights. For People of Color. For the LGBTQ+ community. For women.

I was a kid during the Women’s Movement that championed the Equal Rights Amendment. To my young mind, the idea of a woman being paid less simply for being a woman was incomprehensible. I didn’t get it then. I don’t get it now. Because ours was not a political household, I didn’t get these radical ideas from my parents, so the only things I know to credit are Helen Reddy singing about roaring, and television. It never occurred to me that Mary Tyler Moore’s single reporter was revolutionary. She was just a young woman who was funny while doing a job she was good at. Neither Lieutenant Uhura’s color nor her gender made me question her placement on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Laverne and Shirley worked in a beer factory and had their own apartment. I guess I was too young to be aware of the radical new ideas that were being depicted. These were women who did not stay at home wearing petticoats and cooking, anxiously waiting for their men to get home so they could bring them a cocktail.

Then there was church. At church, women only got to talk in front of boys thirteen and younger, or a segregated group of just girls and women. Women could work in the nursery, teach Sunday School, wash the baptistery robes, or cook and clean up for potluck dinners.

Women could not pray aloud in a mixed-gender setting, they had to let the men be their conduits to God.

What does that do to a young girl who has deep thoughts and a gift for leadership but not so much for cooking?

“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.” (I Corinthians 14:34)

This is the scripture that has, more than any other, served to keep the women of Christianity silent. Now, I don’t have any desire to get into a deep theological debate about the inerrancy of scripture, because my own journey is probably not going to be enough to open the mind of a die-hard believer who is sure that the Christian Bible is the “holy, perfect, inspired word of God,” as though the writers were simply taking divine dictation while God spoke directly to them through a Dictaphone. Thus arguments of first-century cultural patriarchy and the historical passing around and editing of the gospel and epistolic writings before the scripture was codified in the third century C.E. may not matter to others. But those things matter to me.

Because, for all intents and purposes, my church put a gag in my mouth; my mouth, and the mouths of every wife, sister, mother, and daughter. And you know what? Most of us capitulated because we believed what we’d been taught. By the men. The men in our churches and the men in the Bible.

I attended a church college where I sang in a chorus that traveled all over the country to sing hymn arrangements. As young women, we were allowed to step forward and sing in solos or small ensembles, but only sing. We could not use our speaking voices. In daily chapel, women were allowed to talk if it was during a secular assembly, but the moment a church song was sung, it became worship and the women had to hush up.

My husband entered ministry after we graduated. To be a youth minister’s wife in this world was definitely a challenge for me. I chafed against the muzzle, I had things to say, experiences to share, a gift for words and presentation and I had to wait for a man’s permission to say them; in a literal sense, not a figurative one. My husband would have granted me every permission in the world, but his hands were tied by the conservative elderships who signed his salary checks.

Some of the churches we worked in were more progressive in their thinking- they were willing to talk about grace and even sing contemporary worship songs, perhaps even with a praise team! Even so, the women were mute. In one of the most puzzling examples of this subjugation, our tradition was to have a weekly communion service.

Usually, after the congregational singing but before the sermon, a group of six to eight men marched soberly to the front of the church and lined up behind the communion table, hands folded in front of them in that classic man-coach stance. One of them read a scripture, most likely from one of the gospel accounts, a prayer was recited, then they solemnly passed the little silver trays down the pews. There was a system: one man on each side, alternating rows, front to back. If the church was large, the B string of servers would come in the back and the same process would continue from rear to front until the men all met in the middle. You heard the “snap! snap!” of tiny little bites of matzo cracker being broken off as each church member took a portion. Then the whole process was repeated with grape juice.

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Women were utterly excluded from passing the crackers and juice because even though the only words spoken were by the scripture reader, it was still seen as an honor. A designation of leadership. Once, in the second church where my husband was a youth minister, I challenged an elder: Why were women prohibited from even this silent ritual? He mocked my question: “Sure, you’re willing to pass the communion, but are you willing to actually make the trays behind the scenes?” For the record- I was willing to do either. The subtext of this comment, made by one of the town’s wealthiest citizens, was made clear: Don’t ask questions if you want your family to make the mortgage. Woman, know thy place.

In a break between churches, we spent a semester in graduate studies at Abilene Christian University, and in this setting, I flourished. I was accepted as a student, right alongside my husband, and I reveled in ancient Greek declensions and Dr. S’s class in Church Leadership. Ensconced in an academic religious setting, my intelligence was encouraged, my ideas and observations given credence. We all understood that I was studying to work in a ministry for women, I was equipping myself for a task I would love to do. My professors created an environment where my reticence could be shed and my voice could be heard.

We eventually made our way to what would be our final church ministry, at a church that had been, on some issues, more forward-thinking and open than any congregation we had been in since we had left college. There was a co-ed worship team that sang on the stage, there was a children’s musical with instrumental accompaniment tracks, produced at every summer’s Vacation Bible School, there was even a female Children’s Minister. But…

I have to tell you about Bible contest, an event where thousands of Christian kids get together at a huge city convention center and try to win medals by showing each other up in events like memorization, preaching, and puppetry. I guess Jesus’ admonition to the mother of James and John about competition and prestige didn’t apply when gold Jesus medals were on the line.

My daughter decided to enter the traditionally male preaching competition. It threw the organizers for a loop, but there was not a rule specifically against it, so they let her compete. I guess they figured she could grow up and lead ladies’ Bible class. Now, my daughter is a gifted writer. No lie. She’s good. She’s also a skilled performer, she grew up to earn a theatre degree. Those kernels of talent were there in 1999 when she was ten years old. She won a gold medal.

At the following Sunday night worship service, all the students who had competed, not just those who won medals, but simply competed, got to read the sermons they had written and presented at competition. Well, not all of them. Not my daughter. She was relegated to reading in the gym after service. She stood at a podium with about ten listeners, and we strained to hear her over the several hundred people who were loading up their plates for the hot dog supper. Because she was a girl.

When I look back on it now, I know something in my faith, in my love for church, was irrevocably broken that night. If our very livelihood had not depended upon my compliance, I would have marched to that podium after H’s speech, and I would have told that group of oblivious, hot-dog-loving people to hush. I would have told them that they had, in that moment, the spirit of a young woman who was Divinely created and loved by God in their hands, and they discarded it. I didn’t say it then. I am saying it now.

In her book, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, Sue Monk Kidd describes a collective feminine wound, one that all women share, and its origins go all the way back. All the way:

“If she sees few women in places of real power, hears few female voices of strength, and witnesses little female creativity, then despite what is said to her about women’s equality, she experiences women (and herself) as absent and silent.”

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I vividly remember the day I read that the ancient Hebrews had a word for the feminine aspects of the Divine Creator, Shekhinah. I was sitting at my kitchen table, stunned, barely breathing, for about five minutes. Even better, do you know how Shekhinah is made manifest? Joy.

Joy.

The religion which lay the foundation for the faith I would grow up in acknowledged that when it comes to gender, the Divine One is neither and both. A lifetime of prayers to the Father were incomplete. All the years of being told “God is like your daddy,” only told half the story. All the questions about being less than were suddenly invalid. The Divine One’s own Chosen People understood that joy, sisterhood, Shekhinah, were all equally holy. If I were to find a church that prayed to the Goddess/Mother as often as to the God/Father, I might be able to feel safer. More valued. In tune.

“The feminine wound is created as we internalize all these experiences-the voices we hear at church, school, home, work, and within the culture at large suggesting (in ways both bold and subtle) that women and feminine experience are ‘less than.'” (Dance of the Dissident Daughter)

We carry the wounds of mothers and grandmothers. I carry my own wounds, too: being allowed only to listen, never to speak; all those times when I was banished to the four-year-old classroom, where my teaching voice was not a threat to the men of the congregation; repeatedly being shuffled to the back in praise team so that the worship leaders could sing or let their wives sing, and when I questioned it, being told by a man who barely knew me that I was ruining the group with my ego; and seven years of being expected to bake cookies when my real gifts of leadership and speaking were lying fallow and rusty.

I also carry the wounds of my daughter who, on that bright spring day, was shown how little she mattered to her church and to the God they proclaimed.

I am so grateful that her journey to the Divine Creator did not end in that gym packed with people who completely ignored her. I am glad that her heart was open. She made a few more trips to church camp, then set out on her own quest to meet God. She spends time with the Goddess daily, she marches and produces work that is inclusive and awakened. She leads. And she is not silent.

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Using My Voice: to Sing, Whisper, or Roar?

I’m standing on a stage in a converted Vaudeville theatre. The house is empty. It’s the final week of dress rehearsal for The Drowsy Chaperone and I am belting out one of my favorite songs I ever got to sing on a stage, “As We Stumble Along.” In my teal flapper dress, black bobbed wig, and feather boa I glide with ridiculously exaggerated fluidity, then I plant my feet to get ready for the next phrase. I take a deep breath, open my mouth, and …nothing. Just a choked wheeze. The director’s face freezes in horror as I cough and gasp, follow spot illuminating my panic in all its weird glory. The stage manager runs toward me with a bottle of water and I drink, but I still cannot squeeze a sound out of my throat. I end the song with tears streaming down my face. There’s no voice singing ridiculously hilarious lyrics, just a pitiful actress with drooping shoulders shuffling off the stage. The vocal cord damage I had labored so hard to overcome, had undergone prosthesis surgery to replace, was my undoing, just two days before opening night.

I’m standing on a stage in a church auditorium. I am flanked on both sides by middle-aged men, and I clasp my husband’s hand tightly as he bares his soul to the congregation, laying down his ministry, our mission, and our livelihood for a crowd of over 1,000 church members. Their eyes are wide and my spirit is shattered; the only sound in the room is my husband’s broken and trembling voice as he confesses his sex addiction for the whole world to see. I have nothing to say, and wouldn’t be permitted to speak anyhow. My church preaches and practices the silencing of women.

I’m standing on a stage in another sanctuary, an earlier one, clad in white satin. It’s a different brand of church that allows my voice to speak not only my wedding vows but also to sing all the love I feel for my new husband that day. We sing “One Hand, One Heart” from West Side Story. We mean it. My voice rings clear and true that afternoon, it is quite beautiful. As I sing, I trust that my uncle and grandfather will keep my mentally ill and drug-addicted mother calm. She has hinted at a scene in my dressing room and again as I hand her a rose during the processional. For a few minutes, I stop worrying about her to bask in my husband’s blue-eyed adoration.

I’m standing on a stage in my senior year of high school, performing the song “Memory” from Cats for the Senior Farewell Talent Show. My accompanist is absent, having not found the sheet music in her bag. I sing a cappella after the speech teacher gives me a pep talk just before the lights turn on my frightened face. I haven’t yet learned that my voice is resonant and strong enough to make a melody without the help of a piano, without the crutch of another person on stage with me. I stand in the spotlight all alone and sing of moonlight and beauty, skipping the final verse when my nerve abandons me. After the talent show, my mother slaps me in front of what feels like the whole school, and I sense the heat of all those curious, sympathetic eyes as I flee to the shared dressing rooms, where my friends form a barricade to protect me from my own mother as she rages.

I’m standing on a different sort of stage, not a stage really, but oh-so-exposed anyway. In my own backyard, between the side of the house and the neighbor’s fence, my six-year-old self pulls down my pants and allows a little boy to put his tiny erect penis in between my legs. He sticks his tongue in my mouth, his friends watch, and I can utter no sound. I am silent. When it’s over, I hide in my room and cry. He does it again, then again, and I never speak a word. I stay silent and I suffer shame.

But my first time on a stage is joyous, though still quiet. My beloved Uncle Steve, who performs at Six Flags Over Texas in the early ’70s, invites me to sing with him at the final rehearsal of the amusement park’s Crazy Horse Saloon. Only six years old, I never utter even a peep. Yet it is so profound a moment that I will always know that I was wearing my white tennis dress that had red and blue edging and looked just like something Billie Jean King would wear. I will always recall the encouraging expressions of the invited audience as I gape and stare. No trauma, just stage fright and an introverted little girl.

So quiet. In so many key moments of my life, I have locked my heart, soul, and voice up tight. Lips compressed. Spirit screaming, though. Screaming, wailing, thrashing, and hurting. No more. No, no more. I am learning to speak my truth, from the small honesty of what I do or don’t want to eat when with my family to calling congressmen to press for justice; from expressing, rather than clutching, hurt feelings to setting a boundary to protect myself from a tyrannical boss. And when the spoken word is not sufficient unto the task, I write my soul’s truth, pouring heart and mind into words that I sometimes share.

I am discovering that being quiet is okay. Quiescence is beautiful, it implies a hush that is grounded in rest. But healthy tranquility is not the same as resentful placidity. Living quietly, in a place of hope, requires muscular work. Diligent mindfulness. Rigorous self-examination. The Divine Creator, She who holds our hearts and minds in such compassion, is present in our quiet; is heard best when we are still. And it is Her voice that can either sing, whisper, or roar through me if I will but avail myself of Her power and courage.

My voice returned in time for opening night, by the way. I belted about bluebirds and “dawn’s blinding sunbeams” as though I’d never known a day of vocal cord paralysis in my life. But underneath my voice was a support network not just of muscle and lung, but of love from family and friends, and the breath of the Creator.

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A Life Gone Spectacularly Awry

Have you ever watched the Netflix show “Nailed It!”? It is a burst of silly joy! If you don’t know the show, average folks attempt to recreate beautiful desserts, the sort of unicorn cakes and emoji cupcakes seen on Pinterest; you want to take them to your office holiday party or serve them at your child’s birthday to impress the other moms. These poor intrepid souls are not successful, except in the sense of simply having fun. Their decorations go spectacularly awry, their frosting discolored and fondant misshapen, but it’s convivial fun. The stakes are not, after all, life-and-death.

But right about now, our very existence feels like the stakes couldn’t be higher. It truly is life-and-death.

My fingernails, which are certainly not life-and-death (bear with me), look like garbage: the polish, a pastel pink, is uneven and ridged, bright turquoise peeks through; the shellac I couldn’t soak off, so I tried to just polish over it. The cuticles are either torn or calloused, their edges jagged.

It’s metaphorical. On day 33 of quarantine, my nails are indicative of my life right now. Serrated. Spread too thin. Easily broken. Mottled and ugly.

Our lives have gone spectacularly awry, like recipes ruined by too much salt, budgets blown by loss of income, book drafts lost in an unexpected power outage. If we’re lucky, we are healthy, our loved ones are safe, and we are only contending with isolation and collective worry. If we’re not, we’re burying loved ones from afar or waiting for financial ramifications that may change the very course of our lives. Perhaps enforced enclosure has revealed fault lines in marriages; now it is known that divorce is imminent. Schoolwork that was always a struggle becomes a seemingly, or truly, insurmountable task. Hell, even the daily mundane is beginning to feel impossible. The relentless pile of dirty dishes and laundry to be folded has morphed from annoying to cataclysmic.

On day 25, I had a complete mental and emotional breakdown. I stopped talking, curled in my bed whimpering, sleeping, or pretending to read Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. I considered ways to end my life. My husband was, of course, worried. He’s seen this a couple of times before, Generalized Anxiety Disorder is a real bitch. I felt guilty for struggling but compelled to stick it out: the crowded, noisy house and the nagging worry that’s resting deep in my soul like, well, like a virus that’s just waiting to be fully awakened.

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I believed I needed permission to leave because I know deep in my bones that my quarantine experience is a walk in the park compared to so many others. My husband gave me that permission I felt I needed to run away into isolation for a couple of days; I am fortunate to have a place where I can escape, a tiny Vintage Cruiser camper, it’s my nest; decorated completely in Mary Poppins themed art and bedding, parked in the woods at one of the festivals where I work, it’s as close as this middle-aged lady with blown knees is ever going to get to treehouse living.

When I left my house, I had only sparkling water. I had stopped eating the day before; A 2:00 sandwich had been my last sustenance before the meltdown. And when I lost it, I had decided I would simply stop eating. It was the only way I thought I could exert control over what was beginning to feel like an existence of lethargic chaos. My husband had fetched TexMex from a local restaurant and it smelled so, so good. But I stubbornly resisted, snug in my blankets, crying in the dark. The next morning I threw clean underwear, a toothbrush, and both laptops in a bag, grabbed all the LaCroix Pina Fraise from the pantry, and lit out.

After a two hour drive and a journaling session, I felt ready to eat, no longer compelled to starve myself as a method of control. But of course, I had packed no food;  a trek into the nearest town was required. I took my place in the line to enter the grocery store, observing that every single person around me, in line, in the store, everyone was wearing a mask. I screwed up the courage to ask if I had crossed into a county that required them, as my home county did not. A very kind lady walked me to her car and let me grab a mask out of a box she had from her job. I meticulously pinched my fingers together so that I wouldn’t touch anything but the mask I would wear, as careful as a game of Operation when I was a kid. The grocery store experience was hushed and surreal, my first time in a grocery store since lockdowns and quarantines and masks became de rigueur.

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Back in camp, I walked and picked wildflowers. I studied. I slept and ate Pepperidge Farm Verona cookies. And most importantly, the thing I needed: I settled down. I  returned home in better shape; hugged husband, daughters, grandbabies. Realigned my expectations.

I will not presume to make light of Covid isolation. I gratefully acknowledge that my situation is safe. The boat I find myself in amid this storm is sufficient to weather it, at least for now. Others are not so lucky. But I do believe that for each one of us, we must look inward to discover what is awry in our current situation, breathe deeply, speak our truth to those we’re sharing space with, and let them help us. Then we must, in turn, help each other. Those in our homes, our neighborhoods, our extended families and strangers alike.

It is our collective spiritual practice, really. Beyond the hymns, rituals, pews, and flurry of activity so prevalent in our churches, separate from twelve-step fellowships and large-scale charity galas, it will be quiet service and relentless attention to the needs of our own spirits and the souls of those around us that will sustain us. If you find yourself lonely today, find the courage to reach out. Send a text. Facetime a beloved friend. Call a trusted family member. If you find yourself at peace, content and hopeful, look for someone who needs you. I have faith that our lives can transform from spectacularly awry to profoundly beautiful, if only we seek connection. Blessings, fellow humans.

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Short and Sweet: To Love God in all Her Glory

What is it, to be a feminine soul in search of a God who is ever painted as male? Who is strong, bearded, muscular? Who, if He had a body, would never know a monthly moon cycle, the sensation of a suckling child, the fear of the tall stranger?

What is it, to be a girl in a church where your gender is silenced? Where you are instructed to “keep still,” to “get to the kitchen,” to “tend to the nursery,” when what you really ache to do is speak truth as you comprehend it? Sometimes trivial, other times profound. But words yet to be spoken that must be muffled? The silent dictate may be circumvented with an anonymous pen, or perhaps by credited words read aloud by an accommodating man.

What is it to be a woman who discovers that she most often meets the Divine One not within brick-and-mortar walls constructed by men, but among the trees of the forest, the sands near the ocean, the waters of the lake? Who knows God intimately in music?

What is it to know deeply in the turbulent center of a woman’s body that the Divine One is feminine as much as masculine? That God is Goddess. Father and Mother. Sun and Moon. Birth. Death. And yet to know no safe place to speak it. Not as a child. Not as an adolescent. Not as a young mother, nor as a fresh grandmother. No, instead to understand that there are and have ever been men who hold the keys to the kingdom, women who must allow it, and generation upon generation of girls tucked into the shadows underneath the wings of their oppressors.

For that is what it is. Oppression. Perhaps stemming from a place of genuine belief that God’s will is understood. Perhaps not. The oppression may be violent, greedy, loud. But more often, it is masked in the smiles and benign pats on the back of church elders, pastors, deacons, Sunday School teachers. The oppression may even be gentle, cloaked in the deep and true love of husband, father.

Unless… unless a woman breaks free. She must speak the truth she knows, the verity. The revelation. She may be reprimanded, shunned, put back in her place; destined to feel incomplete and imbalanced in her relationship to the people of The Way and the God they allow.

But if she is blessed, Oh the Joy!  Those around her, including the men, will welcome the truth and discover within it a freedom. The chance to understand a Divine One who is incredibly complex and yet miraculously simple.

Inexplicable.

Wondrous.

Father. Brother

Mother. Sister.

Heaven.

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Here’s a more informative approach to the concept of God as feminine:

Biblical Maternal Images for God

 

Live Small. Love Big: A Meditation

After an entire adulthood spent being told to dream big, to live loud, I am done. I simply am. We are not all of us meant to “live loud.”

I am, rather, inclined now to live small: smaller house, smaller wardrobe, smaller carbon footprint. Fewer possessions. Less noise. Limited spending. Streamlined living. Lean…

Not mean, though. The only place I want to live large these days is in all the multitudinous ways that we humans can share love. I yearn for more time spent in nature, more hugs. More forgiveness. More conversations that move beyond the surface.

I want to ask, “How are you?” and be answered with authenticity, though it requires I invest more time to attend the replies, to hear the stories that the people I meet are aching to tell.

I desire engagement.

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And I crave that the Divine One, the wonderful Spirit who created me, will wiggle Her way into each tiny crevice of who I am. I don’t need Her to make me big. I want Her to take the smallness of me and connect it to the stars, to the seas, to the trees. To my grandchildren. To my children. To my husband. My family.

 

And to the unknown strangers at the border. In the Middle East. In the political party which is opposite mine. With relationship to all these, I become vast, my soul expanding beyond what is conceivable should I remain alone. My quiet spirit can then hear all the voices of the universe, my presence is both honored and honorable among Creation.

To live small does not mean timidity, nor a sense of inferiority. It is not self-castigation or minimalization. No, it is, instead, to walk in healthy humility. It is to comprehend that I am a wee part of a greater whole, she who lives among billions: billions of folk, stars, trees, animals. No more important, no. But nor less.

A path both wide and narrow. May it be so.

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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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Divine Time

How does it feel with your god strapped to your wrist, and him leading you such a chase?”- Roy Harper

I write today as a woman who is in a deep, deep struggle. I have, against all I wanted to do, overcommitted myself. Pick your metaphor: juggling balls, spinning plates, whacking moles, I am frantically doing all of those.

I know I am not alone in this phenomenon. When I was a high school teacher, I observed students cracking under the weight of homework, practices, and jobs. When my husband was a youth minister the calendar was so packed with skate nights and service projects there was barely time for quality fellowship with others. Not for him, not for the kids. I still see exhausted parents next to me at the red light, in the throes of carting their kids to extracurriculars, children wolfing down their dinner while strapped into their booster car seats;  millennials are spinning like dervishes moving from job to job to job, staying awake through sheer force of will and way too much latte. Authenticity and presence are replaced with hectic hustling.

I had somehow anticipated that this new phase, the empty nest, would be slower. That I would have more time for sitting on the back patio sipping chenin blanc while reading contemplative memoirs. Nope. Not a bit.

We’re all just buzzing around, frantic like the violins in “The Flight of the Bumblebee.”

Interesting, well-composed music has a variety of tempos, of rhythms. Fast, slow, and everything in between. Think of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony:

Duh-Duh-Duh-Duuuuuuhhhhhh. Duh-Duh-Duh-Duhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…

Da da da duh, da da da duh, da da da Daaaaaa!

Slow. Then quick.

The well-lived life has a variety of rhythms as well. But here lately, it seems my life’s tempo is picking up speed and it’s affecting how I feel. My vibration accelerates; my spirit snaps.

Today, I was five minutes late to yoga because I couldn’t find my slip-on sandals, which is a clear indication of how my lack of time is affecting me. I put things away, pretty much always, and so to not know where something is signals trouble. When I opened the door to the yoga studio, a dozen hopeful faces looked at me, the instructor was late as well; he was a substitute who had gotten his times mixed up. By an hour. Once he arrived, I committed to the entire hour-long practice, knowing it would set me behind for the day. I disciplined myself to stay for the meditation at the end of class, but my zen was interrupted when the teacher of the next class let our instructor have it for his tardiness.

Namaste indeed!

It’s not that time doesn’t matter. We need specific times to start classes, open stores, and see our doctors, else we’d all just be wandering around aimlessly or waiting for others to arrive. And yet…

is there a way that is better than being enslaved to a schedule?

Since my daughter’s family has moved in with us, I have had the joy of spending time with my six-month-old granddaughter. Bless her, Hazel has no concept of the passage of time. She plays, sleeps, eats, and cuddles as her little heart commands. The ticking of the seconds means nothing to her. Author Carol S. Wimmer describes it this way:

“Babies live in divine time, but their parents live in temporal time … Grown-ups have this 24-hour clock in their heads that ticks out chunks of time, rings alarms, and establishes calendars… Little kids don’t know anything about clocks…As people grow old[er], they wish they could get rid of the clock. Old[er] people look forward to living in Divine time.”

I need some Divine time.

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When I committed to so much, I attempted to create a schedule for each day so that I would maintain maximum productivity. It’s hanging on the wall of my home office and breaks the day down into specific increments. I hate it. It reminds me of my years as a teacher, my days divided into chunks that were announced by bells and enforced by tardy bells. I don’t want to live with my cell phone alarm sounding every hour to remind me of my next task. I want to live in Divine time. My soul needs time to write when it feels called, my brain needs the freedom to approach organizational tasks when it is sharp, and my heart needs client relationship building when it’s open and receptive. Those things cannot be dictated by an alarm.

On my way home from yoga, with my Disney playlist singing my way, this gorgeous lyric from Mary Poppins touched my heart as I drove just a little over the speed limit:

“You’ve got to grind, grind, grind at that grindstone, though childhood slips like sand through a sieve…”

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It’s not just childhood, though. With each passing day, I realize that life itself slips through our fingers, unwinding in a long spool of meetings and obligations. Without enough stillness; enough Divine time.

Though I have no clear plan of action, I do know that I will be trashing the giant grid of time chunks. To-do lists will remain, but they’re going to require flexibility and grace. There may not be enough hours in the day to do every little thing. But I am going to move my spirit toward Divinity: walks and words, conversations and calculations, spreadsheets and savasanas. All synchronized to the needs of my soul. I mean to work with intention.

I still haven’t found my slip-on sandals. But I do think I am beginning to find my rhythm.

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Cathedrals: Fifth of Series

I saved St. Patrick’s in New York City as the finale of the series because it’s the first cathedral I ever saw. I was raised in the suburbs of Dallas, where evangelicals dominate the religious life of the community, and smaller church homes were the norm. Dallas suburbs haven’t really been around long enough to have storied, historic cathedrals. But a visit to the Big Apple opened my eyes to a whole world of diversity and art. I love New York City more than any other in the world.

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One of the things I appreciate about St. Pat’s is how crowded it is, tucked in among the Fifth Avenue crush of skyscrapers and traffic lights, cab horns blaring, tourists gaping, and black-clad New Yorkers hustling to work. It’s not quiet inside, one doesn’t feel an immediate hush inside its walls. Nevertheless, holiness is there.

One might wonder why, if I have left behind organized Christian religion, I have been photographing and visiting cathedrals. What draws me, beyond the intricate gothic architecture, the turrets and gargoyles and limestone? It is simply this: I still love God and Goddess. I know, without a doubt, that the Divine One still loves us. She grieves for us. She waits and watches for us to love.

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