Friday, December 19, 2014

Not Just Waiting

I have always felt myself in the middle of things--in between arguments, sides, ideas, always gazing on both and trying to pull together what stands apart, to find what good there may be in the midst of darkness. It’s one thing when this involves friends or family at odds, or my students (in fact I think what makes me a reasonable teacher is this ability, however painful it sometimes is to wield the sword of peace). It’s another when feeling in the middle involves just me, battling with my inner contradictions. Easy to get caught up in it rather than see it as opportunity--as a way to see beyond faults, failings, both within and without. To see the reality of grace.

As Advent continues, Isaiah remains my favorite to listen to, as a voice for those who, in between, seek direction. While we succumb to the sorrows of this world, his voice still resounds:

the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (61:1)

The prophet’s voice, his “I,” was collective then as it is now. His message is not just about waiting or about letting “Jesus take the wheel,” as they say. Isaiah calls us to bind up, give release, proclaim liberty, release from darkness, bring good news. He was a prophet--he had the authority of God’s Spirit--but he calls on us to do the same, to realize that Spirit is upon us, too, to bring right and good into this world. There are so many brokenhearted, many oppressed, many held captive both wrongly (by others) and by false, internalized, and unreal expectations (self-hatred, bigotry, internalized and unscrutinized racism) or even held captive within themselves by fear or depression. Isaiah calls us from another time and place to bring all this crashing down, and do what John continues: in the desert, make straight a path. That path is to our hearts. That desert is the barren landscape of our souls. Let us begin.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Stand and wait

When, try as we may, we aim to plan and schedule, God enters our lives and presents a set of circumstances unexpected.  In fact, there’s a different time table sliding underneath the one we have established, about the way we think things should go versus the way they in fact go.

This comes to life for me now as I make sense of what it would mean to try and have another baby.  Having lost before, I know planning is on some level laughable. That shifting time table is barely perceptible but experience tells me it’s there, in the face of my everyday realities: stressors of all sorts, both the mundane and extraordinary. I am trying to control these, since there’s little else I can control.

In class we just considered Milton’s line “They also serve who only stand and wait”--which resonates with me and anyone who has ever awaited something or some situation that had no definite outcome.  I have a specific story now, but I know this line means something to so many who have awaited any change. For those who lost someone to foolishness or spite--awaiting a return; for those who know death is near--awaiting the meeting of souls; for those who long for love--awaiting acceptance; for those who seek resolve that can only come from another--awaiting that connection.  So many possibilities.

The standing and waiting isn’t passive. It involves taking on what you have been given, however broken. The broken pieces glitter and shine and call for your attention. In the stillness, making sense of the pieces, recognizing their individual beauty and purpose. Standing, ready--not sitting, languishing--and waiting, anticipating, hoping for wholeness again.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

To everything, turn

As I suspected, the school year has absconded with my inner peace, and I find myself running from thing to thing, obligation to obligation, duty to duty.  All necessary, and I’m not the only one. Every morning when I head out to bring Isabella to school, and get myself to my office hours, I see there’s plenty of others in my boat: plenty of people going to fulfill obligations, to make good on promises to be or do who they have to be or do.

I’m trying hard to make time for what is good and simple and soul-filling: those things which make the hectic part of living out our vocations worthwhile.  Sitting on the front porch waiting for the chimes to ring on a windy day is one of my favorite recent pastimes, as is watching my daughter learn how to dance, or dancing myself--letting my body and my skin feel the world rather than just working my brain, letting these slowly but surely coax that peace back.  Even just the simple act of writing, of sitting still and thinking, has become balm for me, though I find myself unable to sustain stillness.  That’s the thing I dislike most about a hectic life: the monkey mind, spasmodic, unable to enjoy a momentary breach of reason. To just take in life’s funny ironies and laugh.  This season helps bring me back though, helps remind me that no matter how we try and fail, no matter what comes to our doorsteps, with certainty Autumn comes, leaves fall, the ground and air and even the sounds in it change, and think again of how much time has past, and sometimes how much time is yet to come, how much growing we need to do. 

Don’t take too long to follow your heart, though. When I think of the sadness of a recent loss of one of my former high school classmates--passing away at my age--I’m sobered up.  I realize what a gift it is in the moment to see my child smile and whine equally, to deal with the problems of my vocation with grace, to enjoy things of the mind and heart and soul, to have one more day in which to fulfill the promise of my life, in prayerfulness and loving thanksgiving.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Becoming More Human

Today Isabella experiences her first real goodbye. Soon, she starts school, but before moving to this adventure of learning, she and I both have to say goodbye to three years of enjoying a little home daycare run by Julia, a family friend, and say goodbye to the routine of seeing her little friends there and the more spontaneous life of early childhood, the more free-form aspects of everyday play and flexible schedule.  I am sorrowing over this, fully aware at how life will change, balking a bit at adjusting to those changes, but mostly wistful for my daughter’s smallness slowly but surely changing.

The trouble is transition, endings and beginnings. Observing how my daughter will experience these. I feel a momentum--and it would seem in all aspects of my life I am finding the need to become vulnerable, to trust, and to see that learning and growing anew is the only way to reconcile my need for reviewing the past, living in the present, and moving forward.  Why should it surprise me that I have fears and trepidations, that this should remind me of the many transitions I have experienced and continue to--and all the ways as an adult I have avoided the pains of letting go?

As adults, of course, we understand the cost of letting certain types of things go: dreams and ambitions, plans, even those beloved to us.  Children don’t quite get the levels of goodbye we fear, and perhaps mercifully so.  The lessons of life come through these moments, and too many of them crowd the adult heart; maybe that’s why we so enjoy our children, witnessing their little moments, imparting point of view for them, softening the blow of the harsher realities.  We can’t completely protect them from harm and worry, and knowing how that feels is what makes transition so difficult, and what makes mastering it with patience and faith the most important stuff of life.

For those of you who follow me on Facebook, you have probably seen the many pictures from this summer, especially the ones of my visit with my aunts--my father’s sisters--who came from Portugal nearly 30 years since the last visit.  It was landmark and joyful to get to know, again, their wonderful sense of humor, and be surprised in the ways I am like them in heart and soul--the kind of thing most people take for granted if they live near their families.  I have never taken that for granted--goodbye has always been ready on my lips, letting go a solid fact of life--yet, these things are still hard knocks for me.  The time between the hello and the goodbye has become the most  precious part.  Then comes the time for dealing with what the Portuguese call  saudade:  a longing for the way things once were, a nostalgia lived.  Not wallowing, per se--just recognizing that with memory comes both joy and sorrow, and valuing each equally is ultimately what makes us who we are, straddling that awkward space between knowing and becoming, adding yet another memory for longing.  That longing is the deepest mark of humanity, and I become more and more human each day.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Various Contemplations

Some jottings from my journal, my brain on retreat at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit: these felt like ideas that should affect us in the everyday, in everyone.

 On retreat there is a dining area in which silence, save gently playing chant, is the thing. Funny thing, silent meals--things people would ordinarily have lots of repetitive things to say about go unremarked. Like birthday cake. No one’s name is on it--it’s just there as we walk in for lunch one day. What are we celebrating? The everyday. Being here. Without joke, without fanfare, or commentary. A quiet little joy in a small piece of cake.

The music keeps me here, at an unremarkable table covered in plastic, the heat rising outside. Content in quiet, because it’s the rule.  I miss Isabella’s chatter, and don’t, at once. I know in the abbey her brand new eyes would see pretty color in the glass, and marvel at echo. She would want to do things we adults consider inappropriate in the setting, but smile at or squelch with shushing. If we become more childlike, shouldn’t we explore the space God has given us, in spite of its boundaries?

 This summer our family will reconnect--their realities will become ours, if only for awhile, and we will learn from each other in this space of time we’ve been given. We will reminisce, learn new things about each other, marvel at how we have aged, and wonder at the mystery of where it’s all going, knowing the next step, into the beyond, into that place where all the answers are, where all the departed congregate and greet each new member and tell them the tale of how they got there, and maybe even show them the way of those they left behind.

 I would like to think these earthly gatherings are a little taste of what we’ll see then. This place we live has us grounded under the beauty of falling rain, the vast skies moving in the hot summer afternoons, giving the impression of haste. It’s hard to see past the gifts God has given us in this time to another space and time, to imagine what our ancestors enjoyed or were thankful for on a daily basis. Perhaps for now I am trying too hard to live deep in the past or too far into my future. Got to ground myself, let this earth hold me down with gravity and rain down refreshingly and touch my senses in this moment, so that I can find with greater beauty all that brought me here and all that lay before me. So that when I see it, when I see what is possible, I will find the joy that has always been present. God’s great surprise to me, that all answers are held in the palm of our hands, that we are indeed wrapped in a grace uncommon, unlike what we could imagine with our feeble minds.

 This recent experience on retreat opened me in a way I did not expect, has caught me off-guard and put me only slightly off balance--off the one I seek and strive for daily. I feel more deeply I am on someone else’s time now, on borrowed time, precious, need to use it properly, save only what I need. I can barely summon the words--my ideas have become like poems, barely perceptible pictures made clear through the emotion and senses. I feel as though I am wandering through a kind of woods of words and ideas and facts, a magical place that hangs midair, that beckons me down the path with sparkling light, like fireflies at dusk, lifting up. While I want to linger here, I know there’s even more and better just ahead, and in reconnecting with the purity of experience, I’ve reached for this unknown instead. For some indefinable, radiant joy, given freely, chosen freely, enveloping in a way nothing of the material world can even promise. Our tokens of the material are reminders of the best yet to come, talismans however beautiful on our weighted walk.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Alone with the Alone

I have written before about the way that suffering tends to make us feel alone, untethered. Varying degrees of genuine concern and platitude can appear in the midst of suffering, which can either create a deeper feeling of loneliness or at best stave it off a bit.

The bottom line is, though, that most suffering *is* in fact solitude. It can be shared, talked about, worked through, analyzed--and all this is the blessing of the human condition. We instinctively want and need to share our burdens; we then turn to faith as part of this because when there’s a path we have to walk alone, where no amount of sharing could make any of it bearable, faith becomes the walking stick, the sure guide, the sturdy flashlight in the middle of a storm. Some of our faith experiences are shared, but in most cases, suffering creates in the sufferer an acknowledgement of the soul--of its place in our experience as the go-between the earth we stand on and that place of beyond understanding.

Many times I have sought perspective through consultation with our dear Franciscans here in Athens, GA, and all of them have gently reminded me of this concept of being “alone with the Alone”--not always using those words, but wielding that concept of the meeting of our souls with God, the ultimate Alone, the Source. The concept of the Alone has (in modern times) various touch points, encompasses various religious beliefs, but is central to this idea that in the end, it’s just us and God. The mystery of that connection is what fascinates, what holds us back as we suffer, seeking to observe in ourselves healing and understanding from all that causes us pain, anxiety, and divides us at our core, body and soul.

 In suffering often we find ourselves only about us--necessarily so, of course. There is a wound, and it needs tending. Being alone with the Alone is about trying to look away from the wound long enough to see that help does come from somewhere intangible, from a touch liminal, ineffable. When I have tended my wounds I found my only freedom in walking away from them aways, wading into the entire cognitive, emotional, spiritual intensity of the experience, and finding the quiet spot. The loneliest place. Then understanding that even in the darkest places, in the shadows, there are things of great beauty, dappled light. Goodness that sneaks into our lives, makes us suddenly aware of the blood running through our beating hearts, in that stillness, in the quiet when we feel our pulse in our neck and ears, and know we are alive.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Momentary Awareness

There’s a kismet that follows me around all my days that is often fodder for these writings. Though clarity on these expressions of grace doesn’t happen often, when it does, I have to share.

It’s typically when I am down and out--for any reason--that something or someone either touches me on the shoulder or swats me on the head, depending on how delusional I am.  This go around, I got a swat by none other than Rumi, à la Coleman Barks: a poem called “The Guest House.”  Waiting for me after weeks of having put the book down, my bookmark was in the page, and the poem there spoke directly to me in the moment.  This kind of breakthrough happens for me with the Bible or with material I’m reading or discussing for class, or a conversation with friends or family, or some sort of discovery while I research, that sort of thing--but this came up to me and engaged me in a most unusual way, as I felt particularly drawn inward by sorrow, by rumination of what ifs, knee-deep in discernment.  It was startling to read.

The poem:

I’m feeling especially human these days, and this poem reminded me of what that can mean, but also what we don’t want it to mean: the rude houseguests that are our emotions and flaws, sorrows and insults, doubts and misgivings, invading us. To entertain them, to laugh at them?  Someday I want to be able to do that with relative ease. Today may not be that day, but I am finding appeal in the idea of these rude guests “clearing [me] out/for some new delight.”

Better yet being grateful for such things--for the “dark thought, the shame, the malice”--is probably the single-most cherished ability I seek. To meet sorrow and joy with equal measures of gratitude. Somewhere inside of this oxymoron is truth. Somewhere outside of it is God, waiting to open the door.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Borne Away

Were you there when the sun refused to shine?

Something about last night was expiation and epiphany at once for me, inexplicable (though I’ll try here, it will be a laboured effort--forgive me for not quite getting the right words together). A year ago I was in pain, physically and emotionally, on this same night: Good Friday. This year, in an instant, in a song, in the sharing of sacred space with my family and friends, I felt something heavy lifted off of me, borne away.

This moment, mysterious, moving through me like nothing else--transformed.

Finding joy where you don’t expect it sometimes seems a given; some joys seem sweeter when you do find them out of place: a flower growing, pushing itself up through everything to find air; the scattered rays of sunlight through darkly clouded sky; the last parking spot yielded to you.  Then finding joy in the midst of ceremony, allowing it to walk up to you and make its acquaintance--that’s something else.

On a night like Good Friday, what those of us who partake in ceremony find is really a funereal march, but one which leads to a kind of freedom from agony that’s in direct contrast with what seems to be going on.  The celebration becomes like every way we try to understand when the sun refuses to shine in our own lives: we share it (tell our story), lean on each other, look to the breaks in our sorrow, see them in light of all else (not invisible, but real, sorrow to be acknowledged).

In waiting for what happens next, be it good or bad, there’s reassurance for me--I feel it like the embrace of a parent in forgiveness when you have done wrong, and with simultaneous discipline, merciful, gentle. I’m still kicking a bit, like a toddler, but I feel that gentleness, and satisfaction in the love which surrounds me.

May it be.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Become like a child

We had the conversation the other day.

I looked up at the calendar in the kitchen and realized--then said casually out loud--oh, it’s the second anniversary of Buster going to heaven.

What’s heaven, Mama?

Looking at her little face, I found myself confronted with one of the most interesting little perplexed looks I’ve seen on her in awhile.  She wanted to know.  She was determined to know. I wasn’t sure I could do this, but took a deep breath and dived right in:

It’s where Buster is now, enjoying lots of snacks and playing with squirrels, I said.

So they have lots of treats for doggies?

Yes, Isabella.

And cupcakes?

Yes, probably.

And flowers? And houses with front and back porches?

Yes, all kinds of beautiful things, Isabella.

A pause.  Can we go there?

Well, no, not for a long time, I think. And it’s very far away.

Can we go there by plane?

No, Isabella, no, it’s too far for that! And you can only go there one time--you can’t come back. (I was already laughing a little inside, and at this point I was just outright giggling.)

This was cause for another little break in her curly head.  You can’t come back?  Why?

At this point I explained to her with an idea we’ve been batting about.  How she sometimes misses our old place, or her daycare giver Julia’s old house.  She said, yes, sometimes.  Well, I said, our new place and Ms. Julia’s new place are pretty cool, right?  You like them, right?

Yes, Mama.

Well, heaven will be like what we love about the new place; we’ll miss the old one a little, but we really enjoy the new.  It’s a good place to be, right?

She seemed happy with this, to some degree, and we went though it all over again when Papa came home and asked her about her day and she created a flurry flood of explanation about cupcakes and treats and houses with front and back porches and lots of squirrels for Buster. Which made us tear up a bit. And made me think of our lost little one, and all those we have lost over the years, souls we miss.  I wanted to be more child-like, like her, and realized I was, to some degree. Because I do believe, maybe not with the same readiness of a child, and I am inquisitive, always. I’ll keep striving, I guess, even if my metaphors are on crooked and chaos reigns (and it always does).

Blessed are the pure of heart. They remind us where we came from, and where we’re headed.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Ashes and Anger, Play and the Pure of Heart

How can I find calm in the midst of trying to do everything at once? On any given day to clean out dishwasher while eating breakfast, then go work out, go to appointments for myself and Isabella, manage tantrums, make lunch, grade papers, bake cookies, make dinner, give bath, read bedtime books, prepare writing workshops and class discussion, prepare bags for the next morning....and on and on, in a cycle, with little to no appreciation but a paycheck (which is nice, and pays the bills, but doesn’t fill my soul so much as deplete it when rote).

Maybe there’s something to be said for the humility needed to complete such days that turn into weeks. This level of humility tempters. Nonetheless, somewhere in the midst of making all these decisions and accomplishing all these goals there needs to be time to will the one thing. Time for a little refill.

So this year it’s fasting from anger: taking a step back when my three-year-old drops and mashes Playdoh in weird places or writes on the walls or doesn’t listen the second, third...fourth time I call for her or ask her to do something. For that matter, when I do the same with my students: inner fury at repeating my instructions endlessly, answering trite questions, or dealing with whining. Or fuming at myself, my failings. Impatience is a weird thing.

There’s anger at things not being where you expect them to be, at people cutting you off on the road and in conversation, at life upending and making a mess on the floor.

The ultimate challenge for me this time around, this season of my life, when I have become old and see it in my hands, feel it in my joints, hear about it from my doctors, is to remain cool in the face of the mess. When being old makes me crotchety or quick to complain, allowing jadedness to set in and old jealousies to fester, it’s time to get a soul-lift, not a face-lift or lipo. For this I know contemplation is the answer: to set time apart and away from psychological and physical excess.

But maybe I am not too old to see child-like joy, to appreciate squeals of laughter, to see the good in the bad and the good equally, if not quickly. Maybe not be too quick to dismiss the loud and messy in my life, and pray for the ability to see past the chaos toward calm. I know I can’t nix the anger completely from my life, but I can step away, simplify instead of seeking to do everything at once, letting go the unnecessary. Seeking instead play in its purest form: bon temps, my Mardi Gras friends, indeed. May it be a good time.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

the beauty of a slowed-down world

This recent snowpocalypse: an impossibly outrageous three days stuck inside, anticipating electrical failure and dangerous traveling conditions, powering down, disconnecting. Turned me inside myself for a look at the better of life. My better self. Turned me solely to my imagination, immersion in it.

Giving myself to imagination on the level of toddler at play means wild abandon, release of control, no matter what the situation. Stepping away from the different kinds of noise in my life has allowed me to spend some quality time with my mind. To listen instead for the chimes at the front porch, a bit of wind whipping through leafless trees, or the crunch of icy snow, that muffled sound of the air as it comes down, the sleet pattering the windows, as I nod off in the chair, listening. My mind turned to creating for its sake--writing for myself, doodling and painting, becoming like a child.

Pausing long enough to really see the pattern of day-to-day existence influencing my identity as writer, mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend--that’s what spending a few days cooped up with a stir crazy little one got me to cultivate in myself.

Our minds, used to worry, prosperity, the concerns of the material, can barely process, at first, the beauty of a slowed-down world. We spend time anticipating and preemptively working toward our goals. Having days with no goals at all seems more than counter-culture--seems even foolish.

The snow and ice have melted away, but I’m hoping to hang on to some of this feeling, that somehow it's ok to be in a little bit of nothingness, and find something unexpected. Even in the sunlight and the ordinary.

Friday, January 10, 2014


Shepherds, why this jubilee?

Why your joyous strains prolong?

What the gladsome tidings be

Which inspire your heavenly song?

Gloria in excelsis Deo.


In our house, Christmas carols have continued long after the tree has been put up, and decorations carefully filed away, and all chocolate eaten (well, not all, yet). In fact, they’ve continued daily in the car with my favorite collection, upon Isabella’s insistence that we always start each ride with “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” and at some point encounter “Gloria in Excelsis Deo,” also known as “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

I’m finding it harder this year to let go the season, in part because of what has transpired in my life of late, and mostly because I am a Christmas person, meaning everything that’s a part of the season--the anticipation of Advent, the upwelling of music and feeling each week leading up to the day--does it for me. In truth, I write this still within the season as a Catholic; I’m not ready for Valentine’s Day, Target. Give me my Hark! and Gloria, please. I started late to the party; I want to stay awhile longer.

Having a three-year-old helps matters--she has decided to interpret the carols in interesting ways, and my husband and I are getting a kick out of it. The other day as we prepped dinner, her version of “Hark!” was “Gloooooooooooooooria! In excelsis green beans!” And I just about keeled over laughing, because of her joy. Her guilelessness. The reminder that in spite of life’s tribulations there’s joy to be found in green beans and maybe some other ordinary things.

Let’s prolong some of that joy. Just for a bit, indulge me, this pause. I’m looking to what will transform me next, in the midst of these tidings, waiting patiently, quietly, for what may make no sound at all, but will change me from the core.