Saturday, November 27, 2010

Joy and Wonder

I am remembering the holiday of my youth, the reason why it was so exciting. Time slowed down for play, for naps, for catching up.

I hear rain smattering windows, see leaves floating down, brown, orange. They are a living poem.

Overwhelmed by beauty, I look down at a sleeping girl, one big pout, long eyelashes. Her warmth is a dream. She IS real. Sometimes I have to remind myself, rub my belly, consider where I've been, consider the wonder of it.

Joy and Wonder.

These are my mantras this holiday, Advent--awaiting--what? I already have so much! How could I receive more? God recreates us as we wait, each day converting our hearts into joy. I want to give this joy and wonder, help others see it.

Maybe joy comes in knowing that the little things of life make the best gifts: port, cheese, chocolate, and good conversation with a friend on a cold night; creating a satisfying voice in my writing; connecting with family over silly squabbles and lovely moments shared; helping a student see something new and fresh in a literary discussion; reading something enlightening and soul-awakening; relishing the dark and light of this time of year.

Peace and all good to friends and family--think about what your little blessings are!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

--Signs and Wonders

Halloween was never a time of unbridled fun; for that matter, not much was in my altogether protected childhood. My remembrance was activity restricted: get in the car and go across town to family households. We got good candy, and popcorn balls, and little toys; the joy of flitting through the streets in costumes creative and flowing was for the other kids on the block. It wasn’t until I had my firstborn daughter that I was able to flit from door to door with my little ladybug. Look for the front porch light, they said.

I had never looked for a front door light, didn’t even know that was the agreed-upon sign.

It’s wonder for me--we look up and down the streets as we stroll, swinging loot bucket in hand, gathering super-cape and looking to the withering sunlight, feeling the nipping cold. It’s wonder.

Every day I find a new thing to wonder at, and this light-on-the-porch-everyone-knew- about has led me into various reflections on the nature of communication. Doesn’t it seem dangerously simple to misunderstand each other? I mean, seriously and dangerously so? It’s not the simplicity of the porch light in our world these days, and this increasingly distresses me. I learn lessons small and large about other people’s signs and wonders--at home, at work, in the news, around and about.

I am making efforts to pause and consider, meditate even, on the reason why people say what they say, do what they do. Pausing long enough can be downright difficult in a life filled with frenzied activity, and I think it’s that frenzy that leads to misreading, misleading, and the arguments that come out of this pace of life.

If we paused to consider whether the light is on, and we asked nicely, would we receive the candy of our dreams? Would the sweetness of real connection with one another be the reward? Certainly there would be more justice (not the legal kind, but the moral kind) in the ways we would treat even those most opposite of us. Maybe a little less trick and a little more treat. Maybe we would see the real in each other, just behind the mask.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Social networking-- bliss or blight?

It occurred to me today that the reason why so many people love social networking and Facebook in particular is that more often than not, these web pages exude happiness. I have my fair share of photo albums and love sharing images of all sorts, and looking around I see happy faces everywhere on other people's blogs and pages: smiling at birthday bashes, playing in leaves, sharing outlandish moments with friends, marking a passage in life, and on and on.

I guess I might say I am addicted to FB--but moreso addicted to the happiness friends and family share through it. I am inspired by their cheer, positive outlook, and pure joy!

By the same token, though, I find challenges to my thinking and way of being; even through the kind of griping we sometimes see in Facebook and blogs, there's something to learn about human nature in this sharing of ideas. It's not always a welcome experience, and sometimes we too readily judge with such a technologically savvy way of thumbs-up or downing. Even worse, we can do this with the click of a mouse--and perhaps not think about the ways we should personally address others' losses, anger, sadness. There's room for readily accepting either bliss or blight in the "virtual" world we have created.

It's a double-edge sword, in some ways.

In terms of simplicity of faith and living, which have always been the foundation of my blog, I think we can find more to transform us, and I am grateful for having such savvy, smart, accomplished, and compassionate friends to share with. Agree or disagree on the issues, I am always learning a little something about myself in the process.

I still always look forward to the good old fashioned social networking, though: anybody for lunch?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Safe and secure

On the way to the doctor's office, or the gym, or out for some special treat, I listen to my daughter wail in the backseat and consider a few things:

*I am her first teacher
*How can I possibly teach her to feel secure?
*How do I teach comfort?

So simple her solutions: a blanket soft and warm; watching children play; sipping milk; watching sunlight dapple; looking into a loved one's eyes; napping.

Well that I would heed her example--perhaps the simple things of life are the solution.

Then I considered it for myself--how have I taught myself comfort? When has it been given me? I find myself seeking comfort now and again--in community, in wisdom from other Moms and friends, in prayer and contemplation. I am suddenly grateful for all the support I get from true friendship and love; from a family who has been the center of my dreams and memories; from a kind of grace unique and powerful.

Take a moment today and find gratefulness your comfort.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Small Things--Big Realizations

The small things of life don't often get our attention until they surface as life-giving moments.

I'm counting things in smaller portions now that I'm a mom: milliliters, ounces, inches. Small plates of food versus a real meal, fifteen minute naps or fifteen minute feedings, two hours of sleep or none at all. Each element of life becomes more valuable to me as I accomplish my day, success or disaster. And that's just it--there will be either success or disaster and acceptance of both.

How else could we live?

However you measure your life, each step of it requires acceptance and acknowledgment before moving on. I cringe at how many times I've tried to move on before accepting something about myself and my life, and how counterproductive this was.

As I accept each small thing, each life-giving moment, I see and feel something new. I can't seem to tire of waking Isabella for her feeding--warm, wrapped in a bundle, fragrant soft skin, laid out in a stretch on the sofa when I go to change her diaper. I marvel at her. She is perfectly formed--exactly the way God wanted her, and perfect for us. She tests my husband and I not because she taunts--we are tested because we should be. Each cry, whimper, coo, sigh washes over us and makes us different. New. Better. I wonder who I will become as much as I wonder who she will become. There's selfishness in us but it comes undone, little by little.

Funny how such a small and vulnerable creature can make us vulnerable, too.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Faith: a Realization or Substance of our lives?

“Faith is the (realization of/substance of) things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” --Hebrews 11: 2-3

On the 19th week of Ordinary Time my husband and I brought our daughter to church for the first time. As luck would have it, Fr. Tom was short of all kinds of help, and asked me to read--so I hobbled on up to the altar to have a look at the scripture for the day, only to find my favorite line in the Bible staring up at me, reminding me of the blessings Sarah and Abraham received.

Much as we had, bringing our child into the world after some struggles with faith.

I smiled to myself. Only God would nudge me in this way, our own private understanding.

But I wonder and pause now to consider a discussion I had with a fellow congregant after Mass--the different translations: realization vs substance.

I totally appreciate realization as the definition of faith. I am in the midst of a realization, about myself and the world, through the eyes of a child, vulnerable and new to everything. Faith is most often a realization, a sudden sense of things, a conversion moment. Sometimes this sudden sense is silly--I realized today I want to kiss the inventor of the drive through (anything!). Perfect for riding and calming a little one and getting things done. Depositing a check at the bank I though of all the mothers who may have had that moment of realization: I did not appreciate this like I do now. Sometimes it’s the sublime: the realization of how much I’m really capable of. Having faith in myself is a God-given grace.

Then there’s substance. Such a heavy word in philosophy and religion, conveying absolute presence. Faith as substance implies security and heft, a weightiness that’s unsurpassable.

We take for granted that we can see. I think of my father, struggling with his eyesight, and it saddens me to think he may not be able to do his favorite things: read the paper, go for joyrides with his family. Then I think of the ways we are blind to ourselves and each other, not with our eyes, but with our hearts and souls. It takes a lot to really see each other through our hang-ups and preconceptions. Maybe we do the same with ourselves and our faith.

The substance of things hoped for in my life right now is heavy. I hope the world for my daughter. I aim to inspire my students, and maintain my teaching goals. I want to write and inspire myself in the process. I want to create a family and community, little by little.

I guess I should think of what I can see with my eyes, heart and soul. It’s like anything else--move a little this way or that, and you gain perspective. Some of life’s experience draw us to new ground where we can see so much more. I think of my very first hike up Blood Mountain in Georgia: that first scramble up the incline, maneuvering over loose stone, until finally reaching Preacher’s Rock, jutting out over the rolling Appalachians. the pain and unfamiliarity in getting there gave way to the satisfaction of that view.

When we’re most nervous, lost, afraid--that perspective is the evidence, substance, ad realization of things hoped for. It may be unseen--but this perspective exists.

Monday, July 19, 2010


Been thinking about the power of dreams lately--the way they seep into our lives, the way we work out our souls through them, grapple with our problems. I’ve been dreaming pretty intently lately, with great detail. An interesting little symptom during pregnancy, this dreaming, I know, this has to do with my little one, growing and moving inside.

Dreams carry into our everyday lives, and our waking dreams move us, if we let them, along a path, in some direction. Choice after choice we come to be who we’re meant to be in the scheme of our dreams. What’s mind-blowing is the way in which this process consistently changes and moves us. I think I only recently realized the extent to which other people’s dreams can affect me, move me, help create opportunities for choice.

Of course, all of this, to my eyes, has a kind of spiritual bend to it.

It’s easy to forget God’s part in the equation, and humbling to remember the ways in which our will to choose the path we’re on is in itself a creative, collaborative act.

I am grateful for the community of love around me, reminding me sometimes of who I really am, and nudging me along. Seeing the bold style of some, the careful tread of others along their way, I mark my own gait, breathe, and take in the view.

Miles to go before I sleep!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Time With God

I find baking relaxing.

There’s something about following a recipe, considering each part and what it contributes, that has a quieting hold on me. Each step, rendered properly, yields a wonderful end result. There are various mitigating factors--I worry about having the right kind of flour or butter, enough flavoring, and the ever-vexing oven temperature issue--but for the most part a recipe’s defined structure helps create that aroma of freshly baked something, made by my own hands, that spells satisfaction of the senses.

Following directions for anything can be this satisfying, especially when victory over some sort of conundrum is the result: destination found, item fixed, program recorded, etc.

Time with God can lead to an understanding about prayer which, while we like to think so, has no definable ingredients every time, but does yield the same results: an opening of self to God. Well, if we let it happen--but of course, that’s the hard part.

My time with God has morphed in various ways--I’ve had a harder time doing Centering prayer with the baby kicking and repositioning, but feel a deep need to return to meditation, to let my baby experience it (just as much as I like to read and play music for the munchkin to take in), to quell the fears and forge focus in my life. I’m going to need it--and if you’re experiencing any kind of major life change, this kind of centering is a must, since often making change involves a real surrender of something.

Time with God has been for me lately both moments of bliss and of worry.

Bliss comes in simple things--sunlight filtered through the windows at different times of day. I’ll pause, look out the window, and consider the new day God has given me. The light comes slowly, and drapes over different things in the yard, then joins me in the kitchen as I cut up some fruit, or on the couch as I write or take in the news of the day or daydream. Then I stop--and wonder is my only responsibility in that moment.

Being patient in prayer--not allowing panic to consume me--determines whether I spend quality time with God. Even as I write this I am getting impatient with how slow I write. But then I slow down. Breathe. Take in ideas one by one (instead of at lightning media pace we’ve grown accustomed to). The sounds and sensations around me integrate into my consciousness, and all of a sudden--I’ve got a writing meditation!

I was in the hospital recently for some emergency testing and found myself in a moment of chaos, my brain addled with what ifs, and no choice but to hurry up and wait. Oddly, I started writing to grasp the moment, and it took some letting go of pretense and perfection, but the writing brought me out of my muddled head. I reflected back on the ways God entered my life in such moments of impatience and worry. In spits and spurts, I found myself creating, striving to connect with the living God in a moment of desperation.

In this surrendering, I found hope--and I wish the same for you.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Generosity of Spirit

Looking up to the altar, my head began to spin--the vision of the monks gathering, the smell of incense, the blue and violet of the windows all began to swim together, and I found myself sitting down to make it stop. I was overheating, but did not know what to do.

It’s not overstatement to say that the woman standing next to me suddenly seemed to know what I was thinking and what was happening to me. She leaned in and whispered “I can go out the door with you if you would like. You look like you need to rest--are you ok?” I looked up at her blurry face, thankful she understood my embarrassment at interrupting the service, and could only choke-- “But I want to take communion.”

She knew better.

“Ok--I will take you to the front--on the side there’s a chair you can sit on and wait, and it might be cooler there. I’ll get you some orange juice. Don’t worry.” I nodded, and took her hand, like a child, and let her lead me. She disappeared, and suddenly I found myself involuntarily crying--I realized I needed more coolness, more rest, and my belly became taught as my breathing became shallow, quick--I could feel a panic of movement from the baby. The woman sitting next to me looked worried. Quickly the woman helping me came back with a small cup of orange juice and a simple poultice of cool water to place on my neck. She whispered again. “Look--I will bring you downstairs to a cooler space, and I will come back and take communion for myself and get you yours, and we’ll pause and pray together. It will be ok.” I nodded, and let her lead me again. As soon as were out in the hall I thanked her tearfully, and she explained-- “I knew what you were going through--you see, I am a pediatric nurse!” The providence of this was too much--I could not help but cry more and say thank you over and over. I felt foolish for crying, but she said--it’s ok--I can’t believe you’re holding together so well. Your body was trying to make up for what it wasn’t getting and working hard to stay cool--you should not feel bad at all.

To say she was a guardian angel may sound melodramatic, but considering I was 32 weeks pregnant, I think you understand how I suddenly felt as though God had directly sent me a message of comfort and protection. My thank yous were both for God’s touch and for my new angel, Rocky. A great name to boot!

The way Rocky handled herself--professionally, calmly, unselfishly--is the epitome of generosity of spirit. She gave of herself without reservation, stayed attuned to my needs, and used her knowledge and understanding and mindfulness of others in need. I only got to speak and pray with her briefly, and then she was off to attend to her duties at the monastery with a special group retreat she was on with the Lay Cistercians.

I think now of the many different ways I have experienced generosity of spirit, and I hope they are as manifold for you as they have been for me. My prayer of gratitude is that this multitude of experiences has really helped shape my faith. I have had many experiences in which monetary or material generosity have made such a huge impact, and have always felt sustained by this. Unique moments which tie us together as community, in relationship with each other--these can be priceless in a world filled with selfishness.

This little guide I have been following suggests some other ways: “Admit your mistakes, compete with one another in showing respect, support one another's weaknesses of body and behavior, be forgiving, serve one another, and refrain from grumbling.” These are all solid ways to show this generosity any of us can take on. Notice how humility is a necessary ingredient? In any relationship humility can indeed make all the difference in the way we reach out, connect, help. Consider how practicing even just one might make an impact on your life. I hope to be a Rocky to someone else all my life, and give back what has been abundantly given me.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

BE in the moment

It’s so easy not to be present. I think of all the times I have watched TV and had a conversation, or talked to someone on the cell phone and walked and managed something else at the same time. Looking around, I see people do this everyday (much to my dismay when I see people chat or text as they drive). How many things do we miss as we fill our moments with multitasking?

I recently had the privilege of attending a retreat at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, where I learned about St. Benedict’s Rule, and found myself reflecting on the tenet of “attending the present moment.” This sense of attending is an important part of the deal--this requires commitment on our part. There’s something refreshing about a retreat, where we can set aside our usual worries of the everyday in favor of tending to our souls.

I thought of this in my “monastery moment”--I sat in the courtyard of the abbey and listened to both the birds and the monks sing. The steady cadence of the chanted psalms inside at Vespers, familiar to me, combined with the cheerful chirp of the many birds preparing for evening, swooping through the trees. The men sing antiphonally--two groups facing each other, singing parts of the psalms to each other one by one. That sobering chant that resonated through the Abbey seemed more muffled for the humidity, and I struggled, big with child, to stand for a bit, to listen and watch more carefully. The sun sets beyond the trees in the courtyard; it grows darker by the minute.

What happens when I get home to an inordinately loud TV, the temptations of the internet, and the business of busy-ness that threatens to take over my consciousness?

In practical terms St. Benedict’s Rule calls for “being attentive to the people and situations before us,” as Tomaine highlights in that pamphlet we’ve been following. In keeping with this the monks take vows of stability and obedience, attending the present moment in a more ordinary way. Those of us committed to the lay life can do the same in our families and communities. We create stability for each other in our everyday actions, and are obedient to each others’ needs as they arise; in this practice we develop what God calls us to do in community, and this is a way to tend our souls.

So--I listen to my friend as we lunch together and consider life over sandwiches. Or I respond with mercy and grace to a request for help from a student, or from family, or from my church and city communities. Even the little things which make our lives stable for each other--grocery shopping, cleaning, serving meals, sharing ideas--can have real impact on our soul-work if we accept and let it mix with the more extraordinary ways God connects to us.

Accept that which is right in front of you--enjoy it, wonder at it, learn from it. In that acceptance may we find the presence of God.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Balance and flexibility

I have always hated folding laundry. I used to scrunch socks together and not really care how shirts got folded in an effort to get them into my drawer, if I was industrious, as quickly as possible. The drudgery and time consumption of household tasks used to really irritate me, and I know I am not alone.

Since getting married, though, and sharing some of this work, I have found, oddly, a kind of Zen to folding--sitting quietly on the bed neatly arranging, finding sock mates (mostly), folding and rolling shirts in my husband’s military style. I accomplish this order out of chaos while my husband might be grilling our dinner or vacuuming and feel a two-fold sense of accomplishment: teamwork and then this uncanny feeling of accomplishment with even the small things of everyday life.

Reflecting on the next Benedictine tenets--balance and flexibility--fits in nicely with doing laundry and folding and accomplishing the everyday in part because we all need to do these ordinary things, but perhaps we do not all see them as moments for prayer, as parts of a well-balanced life. The ways we get through our days in the simple things can help establish something more powerful in our connection to God and to each other.

Balance and flexibility can come even in the tenuousness of human relationship. Consider a balance of self and other--of connecting from within to God who seeks us within our hearts and of seeing our fellow humans--family and committed friendships, those beloved to us--as God who seeks us through their hearts and souls. We have to grow adept at recognizing God’s Word come to life, from church to porch to dining room to wherever--and this practice builds in us a flexibility.

Of course, we do not always find what we expect. It may be there’s a sacredness waiting to happen in strife, argument, discord. As with all things these do not last, and must lead to resolve. We become channels for resolve, if only we show flexibility in the ways we see ourselves and one another. This seems the hardest part.

This world God has given us provides so many opportunities to start a practice of balance that leads to flexibility. Balance time and you might be flexible with it later on by spending more time with a friend who needs an ear and open heart, or a child who tugs at your sleeve, or a spouse who needs simple patience and understanding after a bad day. Balance a practice of body, mind, and soul by exercising, reading, and praying--however briefly each day--and this would create a flexibility between mind and body that forges an invisible flexibility between this physical self and the soul. I know I feel better when I strive for this each day.

That’s where our practice takes root and bears fruit and helps create, as Rev. Dr. Tomaine says, “a grace and unity that bring our thoughts and actions into harmony.”

In that case, I turn folding underwear, walking the treadmill, meditating quietly or in a beautiful and unexpected moment--all into prayer. Maybe you will find yourself in that Zen moment, building a spiritual earthworks, a vessel to fill your life with God’s real grace.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Living Simply

Lately I’ve been working on living simply--and how I can make that possible in my life. I feel like I’m called to create simplicity as a foundation from which God will create me anew in a kind of everyday spiritual conversion. Today, I am honored to share with you the beginning of a reflection series on living simply that I started back during Lent and am striving to carry through the Easter season and beyond.

During Lent I followed St. Benedict’s Rule--a basic breakdown regarding simplicity: moderation; balance and flexibility; attending to the present moment; generosity of spirit; and time with God. I want to reflect on moderation today, in part because what’s happening to me now calls me to rethink and pray through some big changes.

We’re having a baby!

My husband has been building a storage shed to make room (in such a small living space) for our little one. While I know things will get complicated when it comes to all a baby *might* need, I hope to maintain some simplicity in the process. I considered my Lenten practice as I watched him pour concrete and then smooth it out to create a solid, level, even base for building. The metaphor was too attractive! This “concrete” way of thinking about building a life of simplicity compelled me to think of how anyone, in any situation, can co-create with God a renewed sense of self, vocation, purpose.

The reflection booklet Living Simply by Rev. Dr. Jane Tomaine in Notes from a Monastery: The Sacred Way Every Day has helped me to find focal points for prayer and action. Rev. Dr. Tomaine reminds us that “Moderation is an important ingredient in living simply because excess can affect us spiritually. In The Way of Simplicity, Esther de Waal writes that the desire to possess ‘will fill up that inner void which keeps a person open to the experience of God. ...While material goods are to be accepted, they are also to be regarded with detachment.’ ”

She reflects on the difference between wants and needs. That’s a pretty concrete way of action for most of us: separating the two, even when it comes to what we *think* is absolutely essential to us. In terms of the smoothed out foundation my husband labored over, this might mean deciding for ourselves what we’re willing to share, or give away, or not buy, or buy second-hand as the foundation of our practice--and then learn to appreciate everything as gift. I know I see my possessions as gifts: I thank God I have a reliable car, a roof over my head, a computer to use, etc. There are many things we could not imagine giving away, and we’re not all called to monasticism, but we can be called to examine ways in which we do not practice moderation.

Two other ways this booklet suggested moderation have little to do with possessions: time management and “reasonable expectations of others and ourselves.” If we practice moderation in these aspects of our lives, then we should be able to make time for those who need our help, honor and practice the talents we’re given, or listen to each other without the clutter and chaos of everyday life. That would make a great foundation on which to build any relationship. Recently my husband and I have established a “no TV Wednesday” and set aside time to pray together, read, or just talk. That’s made for really interesting discussions and revelations that the sounds of the TV had perhaps drowned out.

We will try not to fill our storage spot with extras--it would be ironic if we did--and seek to build upon this foundation a secure space for our child. Thinking about it for myself, I wonder about the de Waal quote the booklet mentioned:

Where in my soul do I need to create room for the experience of God?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Walk the dogs--or did the dogs walk me?

Recently my husband and I took the dogs for a walk. They don’t get to do this often (since they roam our large yard), and when they do, they’re utterly enthusiastic about the trip--however short or ordinary--and I always find this beguiling. I want to be excited like this all the time!

The going is hard at first--both dogs pull hard at their leashes, so eager to move forward, excited by new smells and sounds. Makes it hard for them to walk their humans, but maybe a little like them: too anxious to see what’s ahead. I started thinking, as Buster yanked in a new direction and sniffed at the foot of a tree, that when I get like this I force my own way instead of letting God calm me and handle me and lead me. Imitating my husband as he trains Dot to stop yanking, I hold Buster for a moment, letting his breathing slow and calm build. Each time he gets overanxious I pause, and in a little while he relents and walks beside me--and we both enjoy the scenery together.

Maybe God does this to us now and again--forces us to a stop, or at least pause, in many different ways. I get inspired by sudden and beautiful landscapes, and have to gawk at them; I also slow down when something unexpected happens, or I get sick, and lately, when the baby breakdances in my belly. Each pause creates that one moment of possibility--that moment perhaps when God connects to me and gives me the opportunity to walk alongside Him.

A mutual walk!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Give your Mom flowers--or memories!

I am always fascinated by the way scent truly is the most powerful memory instigator--and for me that pairs with the visual lately, because I’m getting that Southern Spring feeling again. Each month brings a special scent and beautiful blossom, and it’s about at May that I start really noticing--hey, this same time last year the very same tree did the very same thing: sprung drooping blossoms of lemony-scented natural art. Every time I walk by it on my way into the YMCA, I sniff and take it in: magnolia. I am reminded that Mother’s Day is near, summer is coming, that school is nearly out, and that this time however long ago I was preparing for my wedding, or traveling across Georgia, or doing something marked in time by this blossoming tree, with its deep shade and twisted branches. I want to crawl up underneath the biggest one I can find, recline on a huge, old branch, and read.

The same happens when I set foot outside my door, and the unmistakeable scent of honeysuckle greets me. The creeping vine gracefully twirls around the barbed wire which encases the dog pen--and looks like the many doodles I drew as a child, flowering vines and pastoral scenes on the recycled paper my Dad brought home from the textile factory in which he worked (yes, we recycled well before it became fashion!). In my everyday Southern experience, I see all those things I envisioned on paper with crayon and colored pencil so long ago.

Another Springtime favorite--lilacs. I have vivid remembrance of yard parties at my Godfather’s house, a large bush dripping with flowers so fragrant you could smell them from the sidewalk. Getting closer to the yard I would hear before seeing the dense buzz of bees weaving in and out of what looked like grape bunches of blossoms. I so wanted to cut some and bring them home, but I was too afraid of the bees, so I would stand and watch and smell, mesmerized. We took our first communion pictures there, my cousins and I--by that hive of a bush. We played with our Easter basket boon, and swung on swings, and ate at the small picnic table, all within range of that gorgeous smell.

Come summer, Crepe Myrtle will vibrate with color--streets lined with those artful trunks, dappled smooth and rough, dripping like lilacs those bright blossoms, so impressive in numbers. It will remind me of when my parents finally visited me in Georgia and remarked on the beauty of the plant; of the heat predominating in June; of days when I pause to consider the sky and God’s creation.

Each flowering plant provides a transition, a time and memory marker, and and it’s no wonder on Mother’s Day we give flowers to those who mother us. Our mothers have marked our transitions for us all our lives, and sometimes we only just realize it, as a lovely land or skyscape can captivate in a single moment. The transition from womb to world was a big first one--but then there’s the firsts: eating, walking, climbing. There’s the first day of school. There’s the first heartbreak. Each season of our lives gets marked by a mother’s response--whether we like it or not!--and in turn this shapes us in some way. This weekend I honor all who mother in ways true and comforting alike--they taught us to blossom and mark time with our experiences. Mãe, I love you--thank you for all the memories we have made and have yet to make!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Say goodbye now--counting our privileges and losses

Today I spent my last day in class before I have my baby, and the experience called up for me the ways in which teaching has shaped my life. Saying goodbye to this, even temporarily as I am, has implications on the way I will come to view my identity. All this time, I have invested myself in the betterment of others--through writing and learning and discussion. I have seen students grow and other stymied, caught up with them years later and marveled at change, at maturity. Now I will come to see this at the other end of the age bracket, in my own child.

I also saw in myself growth and change in ideas, and in the way I share these with others. I have made my classroom a place where not only did we discuss literature and all that usually entails--I made it a place where awareness becomes central to the lesson. I feel enriched by the experience of considering everything from my student’s varying faith perspectives and practices, to discussions on the Middle East as it now appears in literature and culture. Instilling this I hope to create a desire for change and peace, active and alive in our communities and in the world these students enter--a world I am not sure I will know how to explain to my child. With time I want to create a salt of the earth human in my little one as much as I did as an instructor.

So many other ways to say goodbye--some inevitable, some forced. This morning, when I heard from a Catholic mission worker of local Mexican families broken by deportation, I tried to imagine how hard this goodbye could be: one woman, pregnant as I am, lost her husband to deportation, and has no means of support at the moment or capital to join him. I could not imagine losing my husband right now, supporting myself. Eventually I would do it--and in part because I have the support I need in place for me--but I know this woman does not, and the separation for this reason is unconscionable. Even worse, the other wife and children lost husband and father. They’re blessed to have a Sister of the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart in their presence sharing in compassion with them in any way she can. I find myself praying for that goodbye to become less painful as the months go on.

Driving home, I saw a man nailing up a for sale sign on a business--perhaps his--and thought of that forced goodbye to business and wherewithal. For some it might be a home, or it might be a relocation for a job. Many experience this goodbye at the moment, trying to make sense of the loss, be it of livelihood or vocation. I’ll be in the same position should my tenure at the job I have loved get cut short--until then I will readily count my blessings, especially when I do have the privilege of choices. Still, that goodbye to the way we bring ourselves into the world and make it alive, better, productive--that’s a hard loss to count as well.

Even in our losses, we define ourselves. We become new--not perfect or ideal, but new. With people of genuine soul we find support, which I hope will be the case for each of these people I encountered today on my journey. For some, goodbyes are welcome: goodbye to debt, to hard times, to grudges, to fears and sorrows. Goodbyes are a necessary thing, indeed. How we encounter them--with both blind faith in grace and dedication to our part in recreating ourselves--makes all the difference to what extent we’ll be made new. Goodbyes forever mark us with an ending that leaves a question mark in the air, to be answered at a later time.

How do we live up to the answers?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Stellar Networking

Last night I counted the stars--for the first time seeing the moon and Saturn through a real telescope. Considering the constellations and the rich history behind them inspired me--the connections between the stars, the patterns they make, finding my way along the sky by the laser pointer of the kind gentleman who enthusiastically taught us what he knew.

This morning I find myself thinking about this in the context of the friendships that have sustained me over the years. I have albums and boxes and now digital scores of pictures from every treasured trip, many moments of joy and of milestone. Friends and family in them tell me about myself, in retrospect-- I can’t repay the debt of gratitude I have for my friendships except to honor and commemorate.

All this social networking has been a boon to friendship--I find deep delight in reconnecting with long lost friends as if we’d never had time and space between us: it’s a sort of alternate universe of friendship. I see connections now I hadn’t before--how the friends of my teen years reappear, in some ways, in friends from my graduate school years; how my tendency to make friends with people who not only understand me but somehow seem opposite of me have contributed to my soul. How God created in my life patterns of lessons through these friends.

As much as my friends have taught me, I hope I share something of value with them--a bit of myself, faith, love, hope, comfort. In my younger years I thought friendship was about being everything to one person, but in reality each one is a small part of the overall beauty of the individual life. Long ago I traded my childish ways of thinking about relationship for the richness of perspective, and I know I have more to learn--that’s the humbling part.

When I was 10, considering the unending universe created in me a sudden and overwhelming feeling awe. Some of these captured moments of memory remind me some things did happen, others didn’t, and some have yet to appear, just as the cycle of stars rotates in the seasonal sky. The photo of a best friend lounging in the waning sunset light across from me in a little restaurant by the sea recalls our conversation: that we would find husbands and drag them back here, to this spot, and have dinner, and feel good about how in the end, love came through for both of us. We have not made it back there yet, but love came through--in ways neither of us dreamed or expected. The photo of myself and a friend who brought me out at a time of my greatest need marks a source of true friendship and support. While during that time I thought nothing would be able to console my sorrow, looking at the picture I know countless times I have received the comfort of others exactly when I needed it.

There are many photos in my constellation of memory--so much more to know about the mysteries of these patterns. Each time I look up I find a new guide, teaching me what she knows. In the meantime, I will do the same--as enthusiastically as the kind old gentleman who swept the sky with his arm to show us how everything is in its place, how time is marked above us, and how in its timelessness, the patterns of our universe return to us like a long lost friend.

Got published on Charis Ministries blog

I am excited I got to share this with a wider audience--and this blog is great if you're looking for Catholic perspective. Check it out.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Slow Down, You Move Too Fast

I find it hard to slow down. Are you like me?

I have made various efforts to--most notably Centering Prayer, which requires 20 minutes or so of sitting still, eyes closed, focused on nothing but one word--or, at least, coming back to it, after my brain continues to run through a list of things to do, runs ahead of itself. Each day presents new challenges to this contemplative practice, but I keep on--the rewards are too great in my life to give up, and I feel compelled to create that moment for God in my everyday life.

I was just thinking that, when I stay home this summer preparing for the baby and creating a curriculum for a new 1101 class, then my life will have significantly slowed down, and that I will probably have trouble not having three proverbial pots boiling at once! Perhaps I should enjoy this as the calm before the storm--the baby will certainly take a great deal of my attention, after all, and then I need to remember the other factors in my life: my husband, my friends, writing and expanding my mind. I need that--I need the opportunity to always think and consider and dream--I do not want to grow static in my own sense of self. We’ll see. If you’re like me you struggle with this too, but that’s just a part of it all. I have always tended to have three pots on the stove of my life, and think that if I don’t, I’m not productive enough.

Which of course is bollocks, to borrow a fave Brit term.

Real life is about enjoying the thing right in front of you: morning sunshine as I write has my attention at the moment. In fact, I suddenly want to stop grading and move out into the sunlight, maybe play with the dogs? OK--I know, focus is necessary. But is it really necessary to drive and text as I see so many students do around town? (Or walk and text, talk and text, shop and text....). Or is it necessary to answer the phone when you’re in the middle of something really interesting? Even being online on social networking--maybe hours are not necessary. What about the real, genuine moment? Maybe for you the moment is enjoying some music--really listening to it--not as background but as the foreground of your attention. Or relishing your food rather than eating it on the run. Or talking a walk, swimming, whatever exercise you like--and being into it, not thinking ahead at the next meeting or the list of to do items that must somehow get done. Life can be busy, and demanding, but we get one to live, and I am reviewing right now how I will adjust and live mine--I hope--in balance with all (well, maybe most of) those demands.

In the spirit, I’ll finish--and you can get up and go outside!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Keeping Watch by Heart

I am overwhelmed today with gratefulness for all the blessings I have. I have a child kicking inside me, growing from translucence to a creature of heart and soul, bone and flesh, and seemingly who already knows and understands me. I know some of this is in my head, but I also know that God touches me with thoughts and ideas and realities. It’s how I know my baby right now.

What’s strange about this is that while I feel movement, it’s still so unbelievable to think of how both separated and part of Peanut’s life I am. This unique time really has my attention: how can I feel such love and admiration for this little someone I have not met yet? I am so impressed with Peanut’s resilience--through two accidents and difficult times in the first months. I sense Peanut loving music of different sorts now--the kicking and dancing at bluegrass, peace and calm with classical and jazz, flutters with reggae. I love to feel the little movements--wonder what the baby’s adapting to in there? I know s/he can hear, and so I share and pray aloud with and for.

I am separated from Peanut by skin, bone, and organs--but am connected spiritually somehow. By God’s grace. What kind of blessing is this? I am in awe of receiving it. I wonder what will happen when I can touch those little hands and feet, legs and arms, feel a little heartbeat with my own touch. What will we come to know of each other?

What more can I learn about myself through those little eyes, for that matter?

An infinity of learning.

I write, I watch, I pray.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

My Paschal Mystery: a Reflection on the Good Fridays, Holy Saturdays, and Easter Resurrections in my Life

I am the daughter of immigrants, firmly Catholic and Portuguese in my upbringing, and I find myself reflecting back now on all that built my faith, my sense of the world. I think maybe, that by reflecting on my path, I can make sense of what happens to me in the now, and meet it with the same kind of faith, struggle, renewal, joy and trepidation I have always met life’s challenges with. I find myself later in life experiencing the Paschal mystery over and over, and the hope I share with you today is rooted in where I find myself now: unpacking the box of God’s surprises and both delighting in His ways and in awe of the long line of experiences that bring me here before you today.

I moved to Georgia from Massachusetts 13 years ago, seeking a Master’s degree and following who I then thought was the love of my life--only to find myself in six months with the promise of marriage dashed, alone with my thoughts and degree work, and, happily, suddenly surrounded by friends and community that became like the family support I longed for but was so far away. It was a difficult few years of adjustment and striving, and I did achieve my degree proudly--but not without finding out something about the nature of friendship and community along the way. The many different experiences of faith that surrounded me in the faces and spirits of the people I had come to know in some ways had influenced and transformed my view of life as I matured through my single years.

Many trials later--piecing together job opportunities, trying different angles on my hoped-for careers of teaching and writing, meeting new people and hoping for love as well as friendship along the way, I found myself strong in my identity as a woman who knew she wanted to change the world one word at a time. I found a place teaching literature and culture; found a forum to write; helped create numerous educational tools for others; and best of all, found a place in my church community, sharing and learning with others my age, and growing even stronger in the faith I had feared once perhaps I was only following to please my parents. I was firmly on a spiritual path, and there was no mistakening it for a prescribed path. I was--and am--living my faith journey.

Perhaps what I did not understand in 2003 was that God had a little something else in mind for me. I thought that I would remain single, that my hopes about marriage and parenthood would be set aside. Imagine my surprise then, when my husband--a tried and true Southerner who I would never have imagined for myself--walked into my life.

I at first did not want to accept he could be a part of my life--we were not this or that enough, I reasoned--and yet, slowly, God brought us together--of this I am sure, since I resisted the idea of getting together with him for awhile--and, long story short, we began that long talk that led to a belief, a hope, for creating something much different than what I had created, with God’s help, until then. On July 26, 2008, after nearly 5 years of courtship, Tra and I married in a joyful, weeklong celebration that encompassed all our friends and family, spanned 2000 miles and was a true jump start to what we knew would be a real adventure.

Adventure it was--so much adjusting after so much time single, and slow and careful planning. We wanted children, we had already talked about it, theorized about the ways our lives would change.

Then, finally, one day--I was pregnant.

God yet had other plans for me--and I think, aside from some of the struggles I had experienced before, I found myself in the deepest Good Friday I could ever have imagined. Just before Christmas of 2008, I miscarried.

I had always thought words could describe almost anything in almost any way, but there is no describing this--and the grief Tra and I shared created unexpectedly in us a bond forged in sadness and in support, in mutual understanding. We grew as a couple through this, and I found myself learning again: about the depth of my husband’s love for me; about the extent to which we would rely on the faith that had brought us together ; about the ways again family and friends would help me to see through the pain and guilt I felt, thinking somehow I could be at fault, thinking maybe I was not worthy enough to be a parent.

I felt my sister’s compassion, having herself experienced miscarriage--she helped me see that acknowledging our loss, naming our child, crying for him, commemorating him--these were all normal, all good things to do. Fr. Tom helped us acknowledge in the same way through a prayer service, helping us to begin to let go of what we had lost--what could have been. Sr. Margarita, during a time much later when I felt despair again at the thought of not being able to have children, reminded me that I should talk to and pray for my lost child--that there was beauty in doing so, in acknowledging that little possible life as a gift that would teach us in ways we could not now understand.

This dark hour in our lives created a new opportunity for us to wait in hope--somewhere along the line, after many compassionate discussions and sharing, after praying, after realizing we might need centering in our lives--Tra started and I followed in practicing Centering Prayer, a meditation focused strictly on God. Perhaps that perspective led us to a new place with God-- I felt like it had for me. I spent time sharing with friends at the Catholic Center Thomas Merton’s words in Thoughts in Solitude. I slowly shared my experience of faith during this Good Friday. Somewhere along the line, waiting in what had become my Holy Saturday moment, I started to see and feel things in a new way, even as I began to fear the possibility that we might not be able to have a child. My husband, always straightforward, no-hold-barred, set me straight one day with something that he said, something I knew inside but did not want to acknowledge: “You know, Liz, either we will or won’t have a child. It’s up to God what he wants for us. We have to accept that.” I knew he was right as soon as he said it, even though I did not want to believe it. Parenthood would be a gift God would either bestow us with or not, and it was upon us to choose to accept either possibility.

An answer came after what felt like a long time--nearly a year later. I am pregnant again--22 weeks along--and through the many trials of the first few weeks, concerns about health, and the frenzy of doctor visits and preparation of our home, I find myself at an Easter Moment, with much more to come I cannot imagine or fathom. I have so many questions about the possibilities for our baby--yet I know, as my experience until now showed me, that in time God reveals what could have been and what will be. Until then I wait in joyful hope and in a firm awareness of God’s role in all of this. I see the many ways God leads us through our losses, the many things we come to learn about ourselves through the grief and sadness we experience, through wondering what could have been. I see that God led me to accept many different things in my life I did not think possible, and to have hope and courage in the face of the unknown. I have learned all this from my experience, but I think, most of all, in the moment, from this little child I have not met yet, I have learned about God’s capacity to love us in spite of all odds.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Land o Plenty

I just got back from a small load grocery trip, to make my husband some tacos. I get all excited about the possibilities--the avocado, the cilantro, the lime, those flavors melded together. Makes me think of my favorite Mexican restaurant in town, owned and operated by immigrants who are now newly populating our area--of the humble simplicity of the food, the pride with which it is presented. Makes me also think of the little faces of children in the after school tutoring program, awaiting parents’ arrival from the chicken factories, fidgeting grimy shoes and smoothing well-worn skirts, hungry for their simple snack of a cookie.

What struck me as I wandered the aisles was not so much the sharp pain in my back from sitting at work for too long, but the endless variety and choices that lay before me. To make this simple and humble meal, I had two choices of avocado, four choices of onions, mounds of cilantro and limes green as a summer field--in the dead of winter. I had something like ten different kinds of tortilla chips to choose from, loads of salsa in all manner of flavors (I was tempted by peach, and perhaps the tomatillo). Each time I went for a simple ingredient, I was met by a bevy of choices. It occurred to me, while I stood in the aisle deliberating chips, that in America, sometimes, we have too many choices, and not enough mindfulness to see two things: that we have an overabundance of blessings and that, given different circumstances, we would not have access to such abundance, never mind being able to afford it. I said a little prayer of thanks, but I walked away with my bag of chips considering what it might mean to someone caught in a disaster like that of Haiti, or another woman, my age, struggling to feed her family elsewhere in the world.

This thought is not a matter of guilt--it occurred to me as a matter of mindfulness. In what ways can we live simply--truly simply? I have aimed to live simply and am both confounded by this at times and proud at once. There are days when I wish I didn’t live in just 900 square feet, but at the same time am glad I downsized ninety percent of my possessions to live in a different way; when I lament, I remind myself that some people don’t have much more than the space of a box to shelter them, or perhaps cannot afford any longer to stay in the place they do have. We all have our moments of wondering about blessings, but in the end, can we see them as they are?

Simplicity--living it AND understanding it--is not so easy when abundance reigns around us and the call of excess rather than that of simplicity is too loud to allow for contemplation over the many and various ways we human beings make our way in the world. There were many who made my meal tonight possible, both near and far--their livelihood I hope protected for them so that they may feed their families. As I prepare what I thought would be a simple meal, I’ll think of them, and continue to cultivate in myself--and perhaps in you, my dear reader, a desire for simplicity. Our faith builds on that--the small things, as Mother Theresa said, that we can do with great love.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Resolve Into Harmony: Taking the Crescent Home

Twenty-some hours on a train makes for plenty of opportunities to reflect, and as I travel on the next-to-last day of this decade, I’m reflecting on resolve--not necessarily resolutions. In music, the resolve helps lead into harmonic change in a song, and perhaps in life, I’m experiencing a desire for harmony. Looking out to the swiftly rolling countryside I meditate on the answers, on the way to achieve harmonic change in my life. Only God could have brought me to this point in my life!

As the rails hum and the wheels of our train glide over them, unbeknownst to us warmly sheltered in our cabin, various bodies of water and mountainous wide expanses grace our windows. Each vista touches my memory--of the times I had taken this train before, or of places like these. The darkness of the trees as the sun sets--their trunks against the pastel December sky--brought to mind my childhood in New England, of beach trip afternoons or countryside drives, of a time when my thoughts and hang-ups were simple. I think of the many times I daydreamed from the backseat of dad’s 1973 Mercury Montego, listening to whatever my mother had found on the radio, and watching the world slip by my window. I don’t think I could have imagined the life I have now.

The end of the first decade of the twenty-first century and I travel the old-fashioned way, and this seems appropriate somehow. The old meets the new--leads into this harmonic change--as the train moves back and forth from my childhood home back to my present home. During our visit, I see my life as youth appear again in the present through my nephews and niece, in their play and in the way their parents look at them. I see the old me, dreaming up my life in that old Mercury--where would I live, what would I wear, would I be a teacher or a writer or a mother or all the above, or something else? It’s in our nature to consider during the holidays where we have come from and where we’re going. On a train this tendency seems pronounced, as if the movement, the gentle rocking back and forth as the car moves along the rails, imitates a mother’s gentle rocking of her child, or that subtle comfort a rocking chair brings to our front-porch reverie.

Even the little things on board seem to instigate my creative mind--the dining car with its neatly arranged tables; the almond-scented hand wash in our little room, by the built-in sink that folds up to drain the water; the lit signs at the end of each car which tells you which way the dining car is; the rollicking passes between the cars and that feeling of moving fast I got walking through these.

Everyone is social--sitting with people at breakfast I have never met, I come to know of their travel plans and likes and dislikes in short form, and each time we find interesting connections between us--as if the conversation between strangers on a journey must ultimately lead to commonalities. These discussions have been as simple as how grits should be served and as complex as difficult family situations over the holiday celebrations--my favorite so far were the affable two men we sat with from Charleston, SC, with their lively banter about life in Florida and then in South Carolina, their easy Southern social sensibility. When I grieved my uncle and found myself on a train to go and console my family, a wonderful woman who has been a women’s counselor listened to my story and told me some of hers. Sometimes I sit across someone doing the same thing as I am--staring at the cities that float by, that rise and unfold in the horizon and lay of the land as if magically. I reflect on this, knowing that others sit on this train, look out the window. It's grace that leads us here.

This Crescent Line, which connects North and South for me, will continue to open up my memory, I know. Each time I ride, I will come to know myself anew. I can’t wait to book my next set of tickets to find out what else has been tucked away in my mind over the years.