Expectancy

December always carries a sense of expectancy, of waiting with bated breath, for something magical or wondrous to occur.

For me, of course, the season of Advent and the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus is the traditional source of this sense of something about to happen. Some years, however, it is amplified by the anticipated arrival of new life – in 1987 my godson Nile was born on Christmas Eve, and this year my dear friends Sara and Molly are both due any minute.

The stories of my friendships with these three mothers, in some ways, tell the story of my life. Nile’s mom, C., was my comrade throughout graduate school; Sara was my student during the amazing first years of my career in Residence Life; and Molly was my peer, colleague, and collaborator in the time of hectic institutional change at the college. All three of them have impacted the person I am today in ways too numerous to list. And each has approached motherhood and childbirth differently. For someone who has never been a parent, the privilege to wait beside women I love and respect has been a gift.

C. told me the story of Nile’s conception, shared poems she wrote throughout her pregnancy (“I waited like an egg, already feeling the first inner stirrings”), read snippets of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” aloud as we sat in her trailer home, shivering in the cold of early winter. For C., pregnancy and birth were mystical and sacred processes, albeit natural. When Nile was born, he and I shared an immediate and profound adoration for one another. I learned second-hand the trials and tribulations of breast feeding while a Ph.D. candidate, the anguish of a baby suffering from a difficult to diagnose health problem; eventually, the horrible experience of a baby having surgery and a feeding tube inserted in his stomach. There were many, many moments of inexplicable joy, and some of sorrow, shared between us throughout Nile’s early years. Sadly, C. and I drifted apart, both of us caught up in careers and lives that left very little free time or leisure to visit.

When Sara was a student, we often stayed up late talking on the purple couch in my apartment – or on a midnight run to Perkins (seriously, who thought those were a good idea?). Sara was a student of amazing promise, yet always claimed she wasn’t. She said, often, “I just want to get married and have a passel of kids!” or “I know I’m meant to be a mom.” Sara was a Resident Assistant, probably the best one that ever worked for me. Sara was and is one of the most competent people I’ve ever met. After she graduated, Sara refused to let go of me. She taught me, by example, what it means to be a steadfast and loyal friend. The child we are so happily awaiting this week is number four for Sara – and she was so right – she was meant to be a mom! Pregnancy appears to strengthen Sara’s aura of competence and self-assurance. She has often told me that two days in the hospital are like a mini-resort vacation.

As an only child, Molly worried that being a mom wouldn’t come naturally to her. All of her women friends, including me, tried to reassure her that she would be great. Still, she doubted. Her first child, my goddaughter Kate, is adorable and smart and observant – just like her mom. Molly presents herself as pragmatic and analytical and a realist. And she is all of these. But her hidden trait, the thing you don’t realize until you know her well, is that Molly is all heart. A trait Kate also inherited (for a while, taking Kate out in public was an exercise in empathy – she saw/heard every child in tears wherever we were, and it distressed her terribly. “Baby crying”, she would say, with a tremble in her voice and a furrowed brow.)  “Sister Baby” as Kate calls her, has some pretty spectacular women in her life, eagerly awaiting her appearance.

Me, with Abby (Sara's) and holding Kate (Molly's), June 2013. Photo credit: Mike Beck
Me, with Abby (Sara’s) and holding Kate (Molly’s), June 2013. Photo credit: Mike Beck

Each of these friends has offered me different gifts: tough love, gentle support, unwavering loyalty. The women and mothers they are have been mirrors in which I have been able to view myself clearly, helping me to grow in so many ways. As each has accorded me the honor of being part of her children’s lives, I have had to strive to learn how to be my best self.

Approaching Christmas, we are often told to focus on the “reason for the season”. This year, in particular, I find myself thinking of Mary. Mary’s life and pregnancy, like those of the mothers I know, wasn’t easy. Nor was her childbirth guaranteed to be painless. Yet, she not only accepted but embraced motherhood, opening her life and the life of her child to be shared by us all, through many generations. I am trying not to focus on the material accoutrements of the holiday and, instead, to train my gaze upon a humble birth. I hope to keep my attitude toward this humble birth – toward all humble births – one of wonder, of gratitude and of joy.

Each night a child is born is a holy night
A time for singing
A time for wondering
A time for worshipping

No angels herald their beginnings
No prophets predict their future courses
No wise men see a star to show where to find
The babe that will save humankind

Yet each night a child is born is a holy night
Fathers and mothers—sitting beside their children’s cribs
Feel glory in the sight of new life beginning…

—Sofia Lyon Fahs

(Notes: An excerpt from this poem was used in Nile’s birth announcement. There are many other parents, mothers and fathers, to whom I am grateful for the incredible privilege of sharing their children’s lives – you, too, are in my heart this Advent season!)

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Becoming One With the Light: The Candle of Joy

Note: I have been writing, in December, on the themes of the Advent wreath. This week’s theme: The Candle of Joy. I out-ran a blizzard last night in order not to miss one day of my holiday time with my family – causing my departure from home early, with many things undone – including my weekly weigh-in and this week’s photo of the Candle of Joy. In a few hours, I will be with my parents and this candle will be burning brightly in my heart. I hope you don’t mind this trade-off!

It should be easy to write about joy. At least, that is what one immediately thinks. After all, we know what brings us joy: family, love, laughter, right livelihood.  And we can certainly write about those things. However, joy, the thing itself, is a bit slippery as writing topics go. At least, as this week has progressed I have found it difficult to write anything true or meaningful about joy. Why is that?

First, it seems that everything I’ve tried to say has been impossible to express without sounding hokey (at best) or insincere (at worst). It is much easier to write believable prose about despair or death or darkness, in part because we often feel the impetus to express these difficult extremes carefully, so that others can understand the exact shade or quality of our emotion. When it comes to joy, we assume everyone experiences it similarly. It is like the Tolstoy quote: “All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Our darkness is unique, our light is universal – or so it can feel when we try to capture it in words.

Second, joy is not the same as mere happiness (not to dis happiness, which is awesome!). Joy is something at once deeper and more profound than happiness, it seems to me. One of my all-time favorite movie scenes captures this beautifully. In “Immortal Beloved“, a deaf Beethoven (played by Gary Oldman) stands on stage during a performance of his “Ode to Joy”. As he watches the orchestra play, hearing the music he wrote only in his imagination, Beethoven thinks back to the night which inspired this particular musical masterpiece. He is a boy who has escaped, for one night, his abusive father. He has run into the woods, and come to a pond. The boy gets into the water and begins to float on his back, staring up at the milkyway, which is reflected in the water around him. The boy, the water, the stars: they merge into one. The boy becomes one more shining point of light within the night sky; one tiny but essential part of the cosmos. And in this moment of union and communion with all of creation – JOY.

That, friends, is what I have been unable to express this week. Joy, as opposed to happiness or love or other good-to-great feelings, is experienced in such moments of one-ness with all of creation. There is much written about making deep joy sustainable through spiritual practice. Who am I to claim whether that is possible or not? I only know that I haven’t achieved that level of dharma or mystic union or Godliness in my own life. I have had moments, crystalline in their beauty and etched eternally on my heart, when joy has surprised and humbled me. The promise of Advent is that such joy is available to us all – as a gift. We have only to open our hearts and allow ourselves to receive it.

Light in Uncertainty: The Candle of Peace

Note: My Thursday posts for December are loosely based on the weekly themes of Advent and the tradition of lighting the candles of the Advent Wreath. The candle for week two of advent is the candle of peace, sometimes called the candle of prophecy or preparation…
 
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“We may have ten possible images of tomorrow and for each one of these there may be ten images of the next day, giving a hundred possible images of the day after tomorrow and a thousand of the day after that, and so on, which means that the uncertainty of the future increases rapidly as we move our imagination into it.” — Kenneth Boulding, “Ecodynamics”
 

My senior year of high school, I had a terrible dream that a good friend (Steve) became disabled from an injury sustained in a wrestling match. Steve was a state high school champion and being heavily recruited by colleges, so it didn’t seem implausible. I had moved back to Iowa for my senior year and my close friends were an expensive long-distance call away. But when I couldn’t shake the dream, I called my girl Pam. She said, “I’m so glad you called! I had a horrible nightmare last night about Steve!” She related her dream, which was very similar to mine, resulting in the same disabling injury. To say we were both freaked out by having had essentially the same dream would be to put it mildly.

I had come to know and trust a priest at my new high school, Father Lyle. As soon as possible, I shared the tale of the dream with him. His brief response to my dream was not what I had anticipated. “What will you do when it comes true?” he asked.

In a previous post, here, I shared another dream I had – this one the week prior to my grandpa Joe’s suicide.  In that dream, I met my grandfather in his new guise as a fire-eating bird (which is striking given the method of his suicide).

At the time I dreamed them, both dreams had the feel or appearance of prophesy – a foretelling of something to come. The first was clear and frightening – and never came to pass. The second was difficult to comprehend, shrouded in metaphor and layers of hard-to-grasp meaning. However, it was magical and comforting, even before the event it foreshadowed took place. In the hours immediately following my grandfather’s death, it offered warmth and comfort when both were unexpected.

And that, it seems, is the problem with prophecy: we never know until much later whether the vision, dream, stump-speech or sermon is actually prophetic or merely one of many possible futures woven whole-cloth from our imaginations. We would love to be certain, though, wouldn’t we? We want to know what the future holds as if, somehow, this will offer us a measure of control over our unpredictable, unruly lives. How can we be at peace when we have absolutely no idea what the future holds? 

I have found that the degree to which I am able to be at peace within myself – and to radiate that peacefulness outward into the world – depends on my ability to do the following:

1. Let go of my need to control how the future unfolds. It will unfold no matter what I do; no ouija board, storefront psychic or prophetic dream interpretation can accurately prepare me in advance. Now, letting go of control does not mean sitting on my hands (so I don’t chew my fingernails to the nub) and cowering in fear. Christian theologian, Henri Nouwen, coined the term “active waiting”, which he discusses in terms of the Christian scriptures. I love this concept, because it takes the act of waiting – which most of us hate, think of as a waste of time, or lack patience for – and shifts it from a passive to a proactive state. Active waiting presupposes that we are already on our way, not sitting bored at the departure gate.

2. Think of my life as having a purpose, and that my purpose is unfolding this very moment.  One of my favorite things about working with a life coach this past year has been that she challenges me to keep making this personal mission or purpose more clear in my thoughts, my words, and my choices. In this way, I am preparing for the future that will come. I may not control the future, but there are concrete things that I can do right now that will help to shape my role, and these things need to connect back to my purpose and values. Concrete examples abound – for one, my purpose has been unfolding to include addressing hunger in the world (both physical and spiritual hunger). Maybe someday this will mean a career change to work on the issue full time. But for today, it means being aware of and grateful for the food abundance available to me, having a healthy relationship with food in my own life, and seeking ways to contribute to both education and relief efforts locally (such as raising money for Kids Against Hunger or the film series I sponsored last year on campus).

3. Remember that relationship is the antidote to fear of the future. There are many times when I feel alone and lonely. These are the moments when I am most vulnerable to fear and begin trying to grasp at control of the future. We are meant to be in relationship:

  • with ourselves – spend time in reflection, examine our choices, learn about our own values and purposes; 
  • with others – family and friends, colleagues, even strangers; interacting in a genuine and loving manner with others mitigates the fear and the loneliness, and helps us create a community. I have found that the wider I cast this net, the less I am afraid of a hard landing when I step forward and take a risk because there are people willing to cushion me;
  • with God – I am convinced that we humans are spiritual beings; that whatever belief system we profess, being in relationship with the divine, with the sacred, is vital to our healthy functioning in the world.

So, as I reflect on the candle of peace this second week of Advent, I am working to be at peace within myself at this moment, and with the unfolding future that I cannot control. I pray that as I find some measure of peace within myself, I can share it with those around me – radiating peace into the world in much the same way a candle radiates light and warmth.

Peace be with you, my friends!

Igniting the Candle of Hope

Note: My Thursday posts for December are loosely based on the weekly themes of Advent and the tradition of lighting the candles of the Advent Wreath
 
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It was approximately 3:15 a.m. when I awoke. The darkness was palpable. It felt alive to me, in spite of the comforting glow of my clock radio and the audible deep breathing of my sister in the other twin bed. I could feel the darkness pressing into me, a sense of evil intent in its probing fingers, like it was searching for a way to enter me and take me over. I felt desolately alone, as if my nearest friend was separated from me by a vast desert, rather than the two feet between our beds. And I felt fear – panicked terror really – the kind of fear that paralyzes your vocal chords and makes movement or escape impossible. The feeling of overpowering malignance directed toward me continued to grow, pressing down on me, reaching a crescendo that finally triggered my natural fight or flight instinct – I sat up in bed and hurled a brief sentence at the darkness.

Suddenly, there was a dawning of light in my solar-plexus. Light and warmth began radiating through my body. I could feel it filling me up until my body could no longer contain it. Energy sizzled along the surface of my skin, little hairs on my arms standing straight up from the static of it. The warmth, the energy, felt like love. I interpreted the energy as light, though I didn’t actually see light. The darkness, especially the feeling of evil intent, receded immediately.

I was certain that God had come to my aid in a moment of real crisis. I lay awake, bathed in warmth and love, wondering how such an experience could happen. Abject, shivering fear changed to this cocoon of love and aliveness in the matter of a split second.

The next day, I needed to talk to someone about this experience. I was only in high school, not really able to make sense of any of it on my own (I say, as if I could do so today!). So I called a (slightly) older friend I trusted implicitly. He came over and I poured out the whole story to him.

“Do you remember what you said when you sat up?” he asked. I said, “That’s the strange thing, it was gibberish – the only word I recognized was ‘Yahweh’. ” Then I told him what I thought I had said. My friend’s response was very matter-of-fact considering the next thing he told me. He said he had just taken a biblical Hebrew class at the major university where he was a student. He told me, “What you said is Hebrew and means, ‘God of our fathers, be with me.'”

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The experience I just recounted occurred in 1977 or 78, approximately 35 years ago. Over that three and a half decades, I’ve shared it with only a handful of people. For one, I’ve learned that most of us aren’t able – or even comfortable trying – to make sense of deeply spiritual or mystical experiences. For two, I’m not interested in developing a list of perfectly reasonable or scientific reasons I could have/might have/ perhaps did speak in a language I don’t know – and that seems to be where the few conversations I’ve had inevitably went. For three, I can remember the way I felt, but I can’t recapture the wonder of it. In fact, as with most numinous experiences, the more one discusses it, the less wondrous it seems.

After so many years of holding the experience close, why in the world am I now choosing to share it on a blog available for anyone to read?!

The weeks of late fall and early winter, as the days grow shorter and the nights longer, are a physical expression of an emotional reality: there are times when that which is light in our lives seems overtaken by darkness. We experience sadness, despair, fear.

What a strange and powerful force hope can be in a world where darkness invades our days. I was a silly, boy-crazy teenager that night when the darkness overcame me and I called for help, yet help came. Hope is like that: like the sudden flash of fire when a match is struck on a cold, black night. Like the warmth of arms encircling you when you thought you were completely alone. Hope dispells our inner darkenss. It doesn’t eradicate it, but hope pushes our heaviness back so that breath and joy are both available once again.

Hope is faith holding out its hand in the dark.  ~George Iles

This week, on advent wreaths the world over, people are lighting the candle of hope. In my  heart, I am choosing to recall the times that my cries have been answered, and believing with the hope of faith that they will be again. In my home and my interactions with others, I’m asking:

How might this world light up if hope were allowed to blossom in every heart? And how can I, today, add to the measure of hope in the lives and the world I am part of?