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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Cathedrals: Fourth in a Series

Ah, the Grande Dame of churches, the towering structure that has loomed over the Seine for around 900 years now. 900. As an American, citizen of a country where we’re amazed to find a building still standing from just two centuries ago, a country where we demolish the aged to make room for the new (in architecture, in cars, in people…), this church just rocked my world. It’s crawling with tourists now, I would have loved the opportunity to visit in stillness.

In April, much of the world watched in horror as the cathedral burned, we worried about the safety of people, but also we grieved what seemed to be a complete loss of a monument to faith and architecture that’s been visited and loved by countless children of God for nearly a millenia.

But praise and blessed be! Only her roof was destroyed.

Do I understand that the Catholic Church has some things to answer for? Yes. And rightly so. But I separate the Godly house from the inhabitants who have abused. Instead, I think of the penitents and faithful who have found comfort, wisdom, and fellowship within those stone walls. May we all find our own holy place, be it cathedral, woods, meadow, or home.

 

Notre Dame Cathedral Paris

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Cathedrals: Third in a Series

I loved this photo because of the juxtaposition of dark towers on blue sky. It’s the towers of Catedral Metropolitana de Quito in the capital city of Ecuador. My husband and I were wandering the streets of old Quito when we happened upon this enormous edifice, the sun was beginning its descent in the west, and the gates were locked to visitors. What struck me then was how quiet the churchyard was. I had visited St. Patrick’s in New York City, that church is teeming with tourists and congregants, the steps are crowded with families snapping photos. But the Catedral was whisper quiet, the only sign of life the black birds hopping in the courtyard or flying above our heads.

When I visited Notre Dame in Paris, another cathedral of double towers, I remembered Quito and its holy hush, so opposite of the clamor at ND. Both sacred, though. The Divine can be found in both whisper and shout.

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If you’ve never traveled to Ecuador, it’s a beautiful place. Learn more about the Catedral here:

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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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Cathedrals: The Second in a Series

“History and beauty lie in the baroque wrinkles of old cathedrals, mosques, synagogues, temples and faces whose stories are told without a single word.”
― Khang Kijarro Nguyen

I left organized religion years ago, but find that cathedrals still speak to me. I believe it’s the vast and varied stories that each cathedral holds that draw me close. Somehow, I sense the histories of those faithful, and the vibrations of their prayers.

When I visit a new place, I make it a point to seek out these edifices, and find a few moments to sit it their peace. This particular cathedral is St. Paul’s in Melbourne, Australia. It’s located just down the block from the National Gallery of Victoria. The day was quite cloudy, mid-winter, and perfect.

I was particularly struck by the large banner hanging on the church building’s side, proclaiming that the church welcomes refugees. Just this morning, my husband observed that so many religious and conservative organizations seem driven by fear, it is comforting to see that this church body is driven by kindness. Like Jesus himself.

https://cathedral.org.au/

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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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