Green is the Color of Grace

25 05 2017

Act as if the future of the universe depends on what you do, while laughing at yourself for thinking that your actions make any difference.                                                                                                –Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Back in December, a friend gave me an amaryllis bulb. Follow the simple instructions, then…Voila!…in mid-winter you’ll have a beautiful flowering plant to lift up your spirits!

As you might have guessed, I didn’t follow the instructions.

First, I forgot to bring the bulb home from the office. In late January, I finally carried it into my apartment and deposited the box, unopened, on my dining table. It sat there until I was home sick one afternoon in late February. I was ill, depressed and tired of the unremitting grayness that is Iowa in winter. I thought that planting the amaryllis might help me feel more hopeful. And it did, at first. I not only planted and watered the bulb, I spoke to it daily about growing and hope and life.

The papery top of the bulb developed a green tinge, which seemed promising, although I couldn’t discern any actual growth. Over time, though, even that greenish color went away. It seemed unlikely that anything would ever grow. February ended, March passed, April flew by. The lifeless brown bulb just sat on my table, unresponsive for so long that I stopped talking to it, even stopped noticing it as more than just another item on a perpetually cluttered surface.

Except for the days I felt especially discouraged – on those days, I saw it as an emblem of my inability to do anything right.

Lately, I’ve been overwhelmed by the sheer number of things there are to get done in any given day. Mired in these tasks, I am unable to focus on the bigger picture – the one where what I’m doing makes a difference in the world, is about more than just running on an endless hamster wheel. Every time it seems like things are getting on track, that there might be an opportunity to look ahead – maybe even get ahead – things fall apart and I’m buried again.

The sense of failing at my own life overrides other perspectives.

In the middle of such a seemingly hopeless cycle this week, I was frantically searching for one piece of paper among the piles on my kitchen table when I happened to glance at the forgotten amaryllis pot. One tender green shoot has emerged from the bulb’s dry papery skin. Of course, it happened when least expected, when hope of it happening had been surrendered.

“Of course,” I exclaimed aloud, likely startling my neighbor whom I could hear leaving her apartment just then.

Of course – because we won’t always immediately (if ever) see the fruit of our labors.

Of course – because nurturing hope, tending growth, changing hearts, holding space for healing is important work, but accomplished below the surface.

Of course – because our most meaningful work often resides in attending to the drudgery of details.

Of course – because when we take/hold everything too seriously, too personally, too joylessly, too fearfully we forget about grace.

When you’ve forgotten that grace exists, each time it manifests in your life it is a surprise. A miraculous, living, green tendril that reminds you: everything matters.

 

 





Light Every Candle That You Can

16 03 2017

Lately, too many days have followed this pattern:

I wake from a dead sleep, struggle to untangle myself from the sheet and blanket on my bed and stumble to the bathroom to get ready for the day. As I drive to work, I am angry at every other driver for,,,existing, apparently. I jump into work like a kid jumping into the deep end of the pool before actually learning to swim – after a long, breathless time, I paddle and flail my way up for air. The day is gone.

I drive away from work listening to my brain argue with itself about stopping at the gym. The days I stop are the good ones. Many nights I lie to myself that I will trade the workout for a productive night at home, checking many items off the needed-to-do-last-week list (and I always believe that lie, despite all evidence to the contrary).

At home, I check the news while my dinner cooks. I give up any thought of productivity, as the day’s latest atrocities suck my energy into the waiting ocean of anger and despair. I take my dinner upstairs and eat while watching The Voice or This Is Us or, God help me, The Match Game. Whatever. I play a jigsaw puzzle game on my Kindle until I fall asleep. Sometime later, midnight or one, I wake up. Stiff from sleeping upright, I get ready for bed.

But I don’t sleep when I get there. I try reading a book. The good ones are the ones I can concentrate on long enough to fall into the story. Some nights, that just won’t happen. I lie awake and try to breathe through the ambient anxiety. Or I open social media on my phone and, before you know it, two hours have passed. I finally fall asleep again, not only worried, but truly heartsick. I dream chaotic or stressful or lovely dreams. In the morning they are all jumbled together, and I try to tease them apart, parse them like an obtuse sentence. When my alarm sounds, I tell myself not to get up, “Just lie here (warm and comfortable and thoughtless)…just a little while longer”. And I do.

Until I have to get up and the whole thing repeats itself.

This past week, on Sunday evening, I had tickets to see Carrie Newcomer perform. I had to fight the inertia of Sunday night, plus a winter weather advisory, just to get myself in the car. Once at the venue, my friend Molly joined me. We chatted until the lights went down and Carrie and her accompanist came onstage.

I heard an owl call last night
Homeless and confused
I stood naked and bewildered
By the evil people do

Up upon a hill there is a terrible sign
That tells the story of what darkness waits
When we leave the light behind.

I felt like Carrie’s first words described where I have been living – bewildered, in the darkness.

Don’t tell me hate is ever right or God’s will
These are the wheels we put in motion ourselves
The whole world weeps and is weeping still

And I was. Weeping in the dark auditorium, I felt, for the first time in a while, not quite so alone in my despair. The whole world (not just me) weeps. And then:

Though shaken I still believe
the best of what we all can be
The only peace this world will know
Can only come from love.
I am a voice calling out
Across the great divide
I am only one person
That feels they have to try
The questions fall like trees or dust
Rise like prayers above
But the only word is “Courage”
And the only answer ” Love”

There have been songs written about this experience of sitting in a theater or a bar, listening to a stranger whose song articulates what has been living, unarticulated, in the listener’s heart. Carrie’s words spoke directly out of my heart – and I am certain that she chose this opener for me. Because a gifted artist knows her audience, and those of us gathered that night were all in need of a blessing. We are all part of the weeping world, but, yes – still believing in what words like courage and love stand for; believing in the promise of the “beautiful not-yet”*

Later, after the concert, Molly and I walked to our cars, arm-in-arm, through swiftly falling snow. The crystal flakes landing on my upturned face felt like a benediction, their melting a baptism. Washed clean of my wretchedness, I was ready to follow Carrie’s exhortation, and hold the promise in my heart:

 

Light every candle that you can
For we need some light to see
In the face of deepest loss,
Treat each other tenderly
The arms of god will gather in
Every sparrow that falls
And makes no separation
Just fiercely loves us all.

 

_____________________________________________

Note: Carrie Newcomer’s opening song, lyrics quoted above, was “I Heard An Owl”. You can listen to it here: https://youtu.be/MyD632qIww0 . Carrie’s songs are amazing, a balm to my weary soul.

* “The beautiful not-yet” is the title to another of Carrie’s songs.





Double Nickels

28 07 2016
 Today is my birthday.

I’m 55. Double nickels.

Birthdays naturally call us to reflection, to assessment, to accounting. “What, I wonder, should I celebrate on this birthday – a life well spent or a future where more needs to be done?”(Doug Thompson’s 2002 article, “Dealing with the Double-Nickel“)

I could focus on the past, where there have been adventures and loves and moments of “glad grace.” I could spy, scattered among the litter of years left behind, all of my greatest experiences and best impulses. It seems only yesterday…there was nothing under my skin but light. If you cut me I could shine (see poem, below).

Or, for a different take on the past, I could remember the first time I gambled, at a casino in Colorado. I played the nickel slots all night, plugging my winnings back in, over and over. The coins turned my fingers gray, then black. When I left hours later, they poured all those shiny silver nickels into a counting machine – and handed back to me the same ten dollar bill I started the evening with. Sometimes my life, on reflection, feels like that night – plugging my nickels in over and over only to end in the same place I started. Breaking even; a lot of change with the only visible difference being the grime left on my fingers.

Or I can forget about both sorrow and cynicism, and instead of parsing the past look to the future as if there is much yet to be lived and gained and created; as if my life has been neither gloriously squandered nor tediously labored at with little to show – but instead spent (nickel after nickel) preparing for this day. And the next, if I am lucky.

Ah, birthday angst. What are you good for, huh? Perhaps a little perspective?

Last night, discussing the annual birthday funk, a friend shared the Billy Collins poem, below. The ten year old narrator in the poem laments the loss of his single-digit years, remembering their magic while recognizing that the sad realities of adult consciousness are upon him. The poem points to both the pathos we feel at the passage of time AND the absurdity of lamenting it at each mile-marker.

Last night also brought lessons in how to approach looking forward on the eve of another birthday. President Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention was moving and inspiring – reminding me that hope is never wasted. We – every single day – get to choose our stance. In the minutes immediately after the speech I thought of Viktor Frankl, whose words have so often pointed me in a positive direction: Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. And into that moment of profound reflection, my dear friend Molly tweeted this: “Emotional re-set. Let’s all wake up tomorrow and be better. Do better. Lead better. Speak better. #goals”

So, that’s where I’ve landed this morning, smack dab on my double-nickels birthday: with perspective on the past and goals for the future. That feels about right. Here’s to believing that 55 is my lucky year – because that’s how I plan on using my personal power to choose.

On Turning Ten by Billy Collins

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.
You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.
But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.
This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

 

 

 

 





Notes from the Middle Ground

31 12 2015

“An optimist stays up until midnight to see a new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.”  — Bill Vaughan

I’m torn: The optimist in me wants to take an inspirational look ahead, to set a positive tone for the new year. The pessimist in me wants to review the past twelve months, enumerating and wallowing in its difficulties. One approach seems disingenuous, the other disenchanting.

In a small way, today’s conundrum is representative of my whole life: it often feels like this life has been an exercise in seeking a comfortable perch somewhere in the middle. When I saw an astrologer to have my natal chart drawn, she said my personality was evenly balanced between the four classical elements of earth, air, water, fire. Every personality test has born that out – I tend to balance in the middle, on the fulcrum-point between polar opposites (extrovert/introvert; red/blue; task/process).

I know, this doesn’t sound like a problem. However, we are all living in a world – a culture, a moment in time – when polarities carry the day. Today’s is a zeitgeist in which, simply to be heard, voices stray as far to the ends of the continuum as they dare. As the ends of the continuum exert an outward pull, the middle ground stretches thin, making it ever-more-difficult to balance there.

Throughout my life, voices around me have declared, “That’s the way it is. You can’t change it.” These same voices have proudly staked out their territory as that of realism, casting me onto the ever-shaky (and mostly disrespected) ground of idealism. These days, I’m coming to think of idealism as the middle ground. It appears to be the only place from which a voice that hopes for peace, that trusts in love, that doesn’t cast other human beings as evil demons can emerge.

Let the realists have that territory at both ends of the spectrum, since they claim it anyway. In many ways, the middle ground is the only hopeful ground on which to stand. Someone told me recently, “It is a fallacy to believe that every voice holds equal weight.” That’s a realistic statement if I’ve every heard one. Still, is that right? Is that just? Here in the middle where there is less shouting, I can hear more voices, can allow them each their weightiness. Here in the middle we talk and we ask first, shoot later. In fact, we don’t shoot until/unless we’ve exhausted other options, so mostly shooting isn’t necessary. Living in the middle requires impulse-control, requires me to hold my fear in check, expects me to breathe through the anxiety until I am able to do more than lash out.

There’s a belief out there that the middle ground is lacking in passion, and I’ve often labored under that assumption myself. At times, it was the reason I tried to abandon the middle. But now I see that isn’t true. For me, calm and peace and reason are to be striven for with passionate abandon from right here, in the very middle. I may sway to the left or to the right, but mostly I seek a creative path straight through the center, to the heart of things. Here in the middle, I’m not supporting the status quo – that is a story that keeps getting told in order to force people to the poles. In fact, it may be the status quo is held in place by the equal but opposing force exerted at the ends of the continuum. More people in the creative middle might have the effect of causing the tension to ease; eventually the tightrope could slacken and bend into a new shape, into new possibilities. What is that old proverb – if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail? When everyone is standing on one end or the other shouting at the top of their lungs, perhaps a different volume, even a whisper, issuing from the middle may offer new insights.
Just to be clear, I am not talking about passively standing in place. I am not saying that things ought to stay the same – I am claiming a reinterpretation of the dominant paradigm. I am simply unconvinced that ratcheting up the adversarial model we’ve been living in is getting us anywhere. The pessimist in me feels overwhelmed by today’s world. The optimist in me sees possibilities for making tomorrow’s world better. Change won’t happen if we continue to do what we’ve been doing, only more so. And I refuse to allow my dreams of a better world to be defined by the rhetoric of extremism, left or right.
Which brings me back to my original conundrum. Which lens  will it be – optimism or pessimism – through which I will view this ending of one year and beginning of a new? Now that I think about it, that may be the wrong question, after all. Perhaps the lens required in this middle ground I’ve staked out is the lens of hope. As Vaclav Havel, creative thinker, writer, activist so eloquently articulated:

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

 

 

 





Hope in Darkness

3 12 2015

IMG_1444

“The dark does not destroy the light; it defines it. It’s our fear of the dark that casts our joy into the shadows.” — Brene Brown

Every year in this season leading toward Christmas, when the days grow shorter and the nights exponentially longer, I think about darkness. Usually, I am thinking about the literal darkness that greets me in the morning and also accompanies me as I leave work at the end of the day. The mere lack of sunshine is enough darkness to provide fodder for spiritual reflection. Usually, I welcome these “dark days” as an opportunity to pause, to think about darkness as a metaphor, to remember that although light is what we typically strive for, we need to acknowledge – even accept – our dark places as well.

This year feels different. The news is filled with stories of our “dark side” as a human family – from Syria to Paris to Minneapolis and Chicago, from Colorado Springs to San Bernadino – our blood pools in the streets and our anger rages out of control.  Compounding that, it is full-blown election season in Iowa and we are bombarded with political squabbling of dubious gravitas and there is nowhere to hide.  This is the year of Donald Trump, whose campaign strategy – at best – appears to be “lie, bluster, name call, repeat”.

This December, my experience of darkness is not about seasonal metaphor. It is more palpable, more pressing – certainly considerably more DE-pressing – than typical. Despite the fact that I am far from the front lines on any of these issues (except the barrage of political rhetoric), my spirit is buffeted by the waves of ill-will, argumentation, hatred.

Where do I (we) find hope in this season of darkness? Does light exist, even in those moments when it is hardest to see?

Barbara Kingsolver says, “The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.”  In other words, hope isn’t something you have, it is something you do (like love, like faith). In this sense, finding hope begins by looking within.

What do I hope for? I hope that love and right and reason and civilization win, in the end. I hope that peace reigns in both our hearts and in our world. I hope that, when difficult choices are presented to me by the darkness of our human failings, my actions will bring light instead of an increase of the dark.

But how do I “live right in it, under its roof”, once I’ve identified what I hope for?

I suspect the answer is deceptively simple; easy to conceive of but hard to do. For example, one day a couple of weeks ago, in the heat of Minneapolis protests over the death of Jamar Clark, I read that a woman I’ve admired for several years, Lisa Bender, stepped between a police officer’s gun and a protester. “I’m a council member. If you want to shoot someone, shoot me,” she said.  I’ve seen enough movies, read enough stirring novels of courage, to imagine taking such a step as a noble gesture. But in real life, that step had to cross a giant chasm of fear and uncertainty. And here’s the important part: it came not as a single act of courage; it was no “one and done” behavior. It came as part of a daily commitment of presence and engagement with her community, aligning herself with those whose voices are most in need of amplification to be heard.

Living under that roof shows just what kind of radical act hope can be.

I am inspired by Lisa’s example. However, many days I feel I barely have the energy to keep the machinery of my life operational. Radical hope feels outside my scope. Until I realize that holding my authentic center while being buffeted by the cyclones and sand devils of daily life can also be about living under the roof of my hope. My Facebook friend, Shannon, is a woman I’ve never met (long story). Her husband is an American service man, and they are stationed in England. After the attacks in Paris, in the first flush of anger and fear, she asked her friends to talk on her Facebook wall about the dynamic between maintaining safety and expressing compassion toward Syrian refugees. As one might imagine, there were a wide variety of responses. What I appreciated about Shannon’s response was that she invited dialogue rather than invective. She posted articles that were well articulated but came to a variety of conclusions. She didn’t foreclose on a predetermined answer. One could say it was just a lengthy Facebook thread – but in today’s climate, it felt like a ray of welcome light.

I am coming to believe it is a radical act to keep the light shining in my heart, when darkness threatens to take up residence there. Some days, it is enough to remember what we hope for – we can’t learn to live inside of something we can no longer see in the darkness that is swallowing us. Some days, we find the wherewithal to do more. In our world, it can be radical to act from hope rather than from despair.  When we do this, we are able to contribute some measure of light to the world around us – whether that takes the form of activism, engagement, charity, compassion, mercy, love or laughter.

In this season of darkness, I have hope that it will be enough.

**********************************************************************************

Note: This morning, just before posting this reflection, Lisa Bender posted a lovely reflection on Facebook. In part, she said: “One of the things about being a parent of little kids is that I can’t get sucked into that magnet because they need me to try and make all this bad shit stop before they get big enough to really see it. They force me to have hope and to act on that hope day in and day out in every little way I can.”

 

 





The Best and Worst of Times

23 01 2014

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”   (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)

As an English major, a lover of literature, and a fan of Charles Dickens, the line quoted above has long been familiar to me. It is one of a handful of first lines of classic literature (including the openers to Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina) often cited as superlative examples of how to draw a reader in from the first word. While Dickens’ line is far from short, it is wise – capturing the idea that every age in human history can, and likely will, be described in this manner.

Not to worry, I haven’t suddenly started blogging literary criticism. I have been thinking of this line, not in the context of the larger world and global forces, but in the context of my own life right now. In some ways, this is truly the best of times: I am discovering new people, places and passions. I am realizing the depth of love and friendship in my life, which is both humbling and energizing. However, in other ways, this is also the worst of times: I feel worried and anxious about money and finding sustaining work, and I find it difficult to maintain a sense of self-worth in the face of constant flat rejection of my skills and experience.

This ping-ponging from up to down and back is wreaking havoc with my resiliency. Furthermore, it makes it difficult to keep focus on the present – to remember that this moment is the one I have to pay attention to. The more I worry about tomorrow, next week, next month, the more I fritter away today in distraction. Keeping focus, both on this moment and on remembering why I am here in the first place, takes mental discipline and emotional commitment. Some days, I find these hard to muster. Other days, well, those are the “best of times” and it is easier.

Last night, I met Kathe at the end of a long day for each of us. We were both tired, and the atmosphere of the coffee shop where we met was less than inspiring (crowded, cold, dingy lighting). As we talked, Kathe told me about the many people in her life struggling in real, consequential, “life or death” ways. She said, “These are people I actually know, not people I know of.” She went on to say that she feels a sense of urgency to live each day as fully as possible, because it has been brought home to her lately that we each have a finite number of them. It was an excellent reminder – that very urgency was a significant part of what led me here in the first place.

So, today is here. It’s an extremely cold morning again – schools cancelled for cold all over the state. But the sun is shining, and I’m alive and aware that this day is a precious one. It may seem like we’re smack dab in the middle of the winter of despair…but I think I’ll declare it day one of my personal “spring of hope” and take my cue from that.





Igniting the Candle of Hope

6 12 2012
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
 
 IMG_1444

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.'”

************************************************************************************************

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?