Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Choose Life: A Response to Despair

In early 2013, in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, it was Peter Mayer who ultimately saved my soul. His inspiring lyrics to songs lifting up the vastness of the universe and the wonderment of life were the thing that helped to move my response to life from despair to affirmation again. Though I waded through the mire of those dark weeks following the devastating news with the help of community and spiritual practice-  clinging to recent retreat visions and the poetry of interdependence, lighting candles of mourning at a local interfaith vigil, praying with a dear friend on the solstice by a favorite waterfall, and summoning enough courage to lead and deliver a message of hope for the Christmas Eve service at my congregation- I was still struck down by the cloud of meaningless tragedy.  Newtown is 40 minutes from where I live, and dear friends who live there had children not quite hold enough for  Kindergarten then.  It was 'close to home' in many ways, and I, like so many others, rushed home that day to collect my children and hug them tighter than I ever had before.

But listening to the music of Peter Mayer, my spirit returned to life.  It was the first week of January, when I had again stepped forward to offer a sermon, this time on the subject of "Epiphany".   For inspiration, I played- over and over on my ipod- "The Play" 

When I try to grasp the simple fact of this existence. And think of all the fantasies, fairy tales and wishes. None strike me as more unlikely or magnificent than this is...

As I listened something in me knew deeply once again the preciousness and fragility of life itself, and the wonderment that in the great vast universe we exist and have our being.  And something in me experienced the call to once again honor and show reverence for it all.

Now, caught up again in the heartbreak of life, this summer we are met from all sides with stories that could move our souls to despair. From Ferguson to the Middle East to deported immigrant children, we want to turn away from the images, to forget.  But our only way out as a people is through; we must join together to grieve for the senseless loss and irreverent abuse of human lives.  The war and the violence and the human ignorance continues, but it is Life itself that makes the world go round. What actions can we do that are life giving?  Are our gifts of wonder and gratitude and compassion enough?

Deep in that Newtown winter darkness I learned that the worst I can offer the world is my despair.  [Now, I do distinguish depression (a mental illness) from this state of collective despair (a condition of the soul), and I urge those who struggle with depression to seek medical and psychological treatment. For those of us caught in the collective despair, spiritual guidance might be a way through. I have known depression which led to self-abuse and suicidal ideation at another dark time of my life and sought and received psychological treatment in my early twenties… so I know well the difference, though the psycho-spiritual dimensions of all darkness are interrelated and overlap...but that is another story for another time.]

But despair- this I am identifying as a common response to the world's tragedies;  a response that perpetuates darkness of soul- and I plead that we might look for hope wherever we can find it.  Mr. Rogers says "look for the helpers" in those dark times, and I say yes, and also the ones who have witnessed with their souls a meaningful way to survive. As a teenager and young adult, I looked to Anne Frank, Corrie Ten Boom, and Etty Hillesum- writers of the Holocaust- for answers.  I sought out poems and drawings of butterflies by children in barracks as proof that something of the soul (that thing which perpetuates beauty and meaning at all cost) could not be destroyed no matter how horrifying the circumstance.

And yet, I have noticed how easy it is to despair these days as minds are manipulated by social media.  Beheadings, teens lighting themselves on fire, abused animals- those repulsive images are made so easily visible now to the public's eyes…. and so too, the racist, misogynistic and vengeful commentary that plays on in pseudo-political debate in the comments section of every article. Why are we so drawn to sink in the mire?

But this is not the only response. We can choose to nurture and spread images of life. I am moved by another tide- and in one period of 24 hours- take note of friends who are fighting back with light. There are new pictures and stories in my newsfeed:  People standing for hope and peace on the side of love.  Those images too light the screen like yellow candles in a black night.  Articles are shared: a 99 year old woman making dresses for children in Africa,  a summer camp for the deaf performing Pharell Williams' song 'Happy' in sign language, a professional barber who gives haircuts on sundays to homeless men on the streets, a  retreat for peace that brings together Palestinians and Israelis at Thich Nhat Hanh's Plum Village, and the stories of 50 women who have changed the world.

Personal stories come too from friends I know and love: a dance therapist who is refuge to a suicidal woman in the hospital where she works; an activist on the front lines of Ferguson, as a witness to social justice in peaceful protest; a Jewish chaplain who joins hands in worship beside a Muslim colleague, as leaders to young and old in interfaith understanding; a teenager from my congregation on a mission trip in Nicaragua helping to build a house for a family; and one young boy from Sandy Hook who begins his first day of kindergarten with a smile on his face, full of innocence and hope.   These are the pictures in my news feed today.

I am moved and in awe of the human spirit, so brilliantly shining through online images. I am awed, and remembering again the words that Peter Mayer sang… 

Hands and faces seen up close, galaxies through telescopes... Crimson hillsides in the fall, and more astounding than them all... Are pondering minds with eyes that see these are deep mysteries... Deep mysteries

Perhaps we are the greatest mystery that exists, we with our choice to choose life. There is a wave of despair-  and another current of love that must roll back against it.  This world is more precious and beyond our understanding, the songwriters of our living tradition remind us.   Our only response to the tragedy and heartbreak of this world must be to stare it straight in the face and in the midst of destruction, to choose life: to fight for it, love the hell out of it, work for justice, and at the end of the day bow down in gratitude to the stars, the heavens, the wonder of each other and our very existence. And to sing to the beauty of it all.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Brief moment…

I am a little speechless tonight.  At the moment- incredibly grateful.  I have one child wrapped in a zebra- striped blanket, the other in a leopard-spotted one.  Both are well and healthy, and though I worry about them constantly, they are really doing just fine… There seems to be something stable and solid and full of compassion at each child's core.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

To Speak of Trees...

I have been thinking a lot today about happiness and sadness, and about all that I have learned so far on this journey to where I now stand at 38 years old.  In many ways, I am not nearly as accomplished or successful as I thought I would be at this age. I still relish the question: "What do you want to do when you grow up?", and maybe for the first time in my life can actually answer it.  For now, I'm raising kids, unraveling myself from the snare of financial debt, and learning all I can learn about myself and the world in the school of life. In my finer moments- I get to speak, lead, and love from all that I have learned- and this brings me fulfillment. There is so much more to learn that will slowly unfold in service. 

I wonder if we get it wrong in our culture- saving the inner life for the later life. We contemplatives just cannot wait until we are retired to know ourselves.  And is it really the better way- to spend the first half of life acting, and the second half reflecting? What if our action and reflection were intertwined, and what if we really did not fully act until we knew the spirit from which we could act most wisely?  Perhaps then we might have more peace and kindness in this world- beginning with our ambitious youth. 

The past few days I have felt a kind of sadness, but rather than drowning in days of worry and loss of meaning as I used to, I have simply waited for it to pass.  I know myself better now, and when depression hits, I know that it is impermanent. This is sadness, not clinical depression.  I know the mood for its melancholy- the way its heaviness falls over eyelids and cheekbones, fills my entire face with water and frowns.  I ask the question- why? oh where did you come from?  I listen in silence and remember: the cold or unkind word picked up by the unconscious…the news of a young man I know with cancer...the news article I read about campus rape... the picture of a dead child from Gaza flashed across my computer screen. Is it any wonder that the water comes? This is not poetic…. This is deep woe.

It is woe that comes in waves and will always be there beneath everything, like silt in a river bed.  But there is in this same instance:  Joy.  When I look at the fruit trees, the river, the full green abundance of the yard; the overflowing bounty of a garden in late July- buckets of zucchini and cucumbers and the first tomatoes.  When I relish good moments with my children. Or read a friend's loving words.  Then I am blessed with the fullness of being alive. 

Are these frivolous things in the face of such horrors as war and illness? The poet Bertolt Brecht once wrote"Ah, what an age it is/ When to speak of trees is almost a crime/ For it is a kind of silence about injustice!"  One could say this... that to turn our eyes toward natural beauty is to turn away from the sorrow. But we need nature and love and poetry to sustain us. What use is it to be all activist, without a source of overflowing love and inner capacity from which to draw? To speak of trees is to speak of the source of life. This is the work of the poets and the contemplatives too- to draw our attention to the holding of beauty in the midst of sorrow.

So tonight I speak of trees. I speak of the young tree of my 7 year old curled up in zebra-striped blankets and pillows, poring over National Geographic pictures, immersed in her countless questions, her need-to-knows. Or the tall tree of my 10 year old finding strength and compassion in the midst of her own broken heart caused by a conflict with a dear friend. I am sad for her and for her friend's unexpressed pain….for all the girls who are figuring out what it means to be 10 years old in a culture of so many harsh and unfair pressures bent on suppressing the spirit.   The tears come as we talk and cuddle… and figure out how to laugh our way back into life.

My own daughters, safe and strong, are "trees", growing and becoming testaments of strength and beauty and light.  Perhaps they are also the reason I do not sink in despair.  I let the tears come but do not wallow, and find life renewing itself, even in the midst of great tragedy, over and over again.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Moss Time

Tonight my 7 year old daughter fell asleep with her head on my lap…what heavy things I have carried today: two full compost buckets and a sleeping child.  What other heavy things have I carried? The weight of sorrow and helplessness- pictures of other children... children trapped by violence in Gaza....and children running from violence and met with anger at our borders…

I am also carrying some hope- some pictures of peace in the midst- the intimate hug of friendship between a Palestinian and an Israeli- in the midst of horrific fighting too large and too long to hold in my view. And at our borders- pictures of people in yellow shirts standing with other faiths to bring our attention to the plight of children.  Large crowds of supporters, part of a movement, standing for the defenseless, the small.

My eyes flash between the large and the small, the particular and the panoramic.  In my small life, I see most often the particular- the moments of intimate love and connection.  Though standing on a  mountaintop or overlooking a river, my vision is panoramic in scope.

I was moved at General Assembly this year (my first!) to see justice and love from a panoramic view….raising my hand to vote on actions of immediate social witness as a delegate, raising my voice in joyful singing at worship with 5,000 others, and raising my eyes to flames on a river and my ears to melodic music everywhere at WaterFire- a truly moving witness and gift of love to the city of Providence, Rhode Island.  I was proud to stand among all those yellow-shirted UU's in what was for me the most contemplative moment of the conference- sharing this moment first with a local stranger who told me he comes to every water-lighting for the peace and beauty… and later with a small crowd surrounding two men from Nashville, Tennessee who proclaimed their wedding vows beside the flame-lit river (a ceremony I happened upon by surprise, and by joy…). 

There is a different energy to be one among thousands.  In my quiet Hudson Valley life, I am sensitive to the particular.  I can quiet my mind by meditating on an ant meandering across a meditation hall floor, or a bee pollinating yellow wildflowers by the Hudson river. I can see the universe in a single stem.There is a way of seeing everything in the mundane; like the lead character, Alma, in Elizabeth Gilbert's latest book - The Signature of All Things- who pursues the meaning of life through science- by studying the particular, the slow evolution of moss.  She calls it "moss time", noting a slower-almost infinite- pace of time much different than our own. The lens of a microscope reveals a world no less grand than the voyages to exotic islands... and certainly more real than the fancies of some angelic realm beyond. It is in this world that we must live. In human time... but perhaps also in moss time.

Moss time. "Isn't it plain the sheets of moss, except that/ they have no tongues, could lecture/ all day if they wanted about/ spiritual patience?" writes Mary Oliver, in her poem Landscape.  Perhaps that is what we are caught up in this summer- as though our lives were following a different clock. 

For those of us caught up in busy lives, moss time signifies a much needed slowing down which opens our eyes to noticing the particular;  but perhaps there are others for whom this slowing of time has become a way of life- tedious, almost infinite... 

I think of prisoners. Yes, perhaps moss time is a heaviness in the life of the incarcerated…. I am writing letters to a prisoner now according to the holiday cycle of the Pagan year- an honoring of his religious rhythms, and my own need for calendared commitments.  I am aware that the distance between letters is so much greater on his end than on mine. 

It is unbearable for some. This past weekend I climbed a mountain with my children and a few friends; it was the first mountain I ever climbed 18 years ago- and it was my first time returning since.  Climbing the mountain was a ritual- a pilgrimage- in memory of another prisoner- sentenced to 37 years, who died recently after just two years into his sentence.  He was one of my original companions (there were three of us) on that climb 18 years ago.  Then, it was a relatively short two hour climb which we ran up with enthusiasm and our naive adventurous spirits… and a drawn out 5 mile return descent along a winding service road (as it was too dark to return by the trail).   Oddly enough, our conversation on that descent turned to evolution- dinosaur intelligence, mass extinction, and grace. It was an unforgettable climb and return- and one which led- for me- to a love for hiking up other mountains in places throughout the country. 

This time we climbed by day, and I returned by trail, not road.  The descent was a run down steep rocks on my own.  As I ran, I saw my younger twenty-year-old self and her two friends walking up.  I saw myself with a water bottle filled with vodka, a hurt heart, and an open spirit bent on restless disaster. I saw all that I had not yet seen.  I saw all the things I thought I knew then- and all that I did not yet know.  I saw my younger self and I loved her and I forgave her.   And all this too for the others- one now a ghost, whose last years were caught up in pain- spiraling cycles inflicted on self and others- and perhaps a coming home.  All this, I witnessed. 

I was running down the mountain on the opposite of moss time, the reeling flight backward through days and decades. At the end of the tunnel- after crossing over a dangerous highway- I found a semblance of peace. 

And perhaps peace too will come- unimaginable on that panoramic scale in human time, but maybe in moss time. But in the particular, we can see it now. This summer when the intimate loving between two strangers- the ultimate witness to love in a celebration of marriage- is human time.  As is a child falling asleep on my lap. 

And if we can in the particular bear witness in love to the breaking of these hearts and the healing of these wounds and the connections and threads that bind us together- then perhaps we will slowly mend the world in the panoramic.  Or at the very least, in our struggle- uphold the beauty and the tenderness and the wholeness of life in its terrible midst. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Fire of Commitment

Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, 2014
I am beginning a new segment of this blog, which I am naming after that beloved UU song in our teal Singing the Journey hymnals: The Fire of Commitment.  The symbol of fire has ignited this journey, casting its warm glow on my life…it has been smouldering for awhile, and in the words of Garth Brooks-'I cannot abide, standing outside'...the fire!  I have walked wooded paths beside a river…and I have arrived at a place where vows are made before a blazing water fire. So this is where the journey leads?  I am arrived at that unexpected place, where Love surrounds me with its warm conflagration, a love that will not let me go.  This is the Holy Pentecost, the Fire of the Spirit, the power of love that moves within me and through me, as I move more deeply into the fullness of Life.

2014 New Contemplatives, Spiritual Directors International 

                      May the reflections I offer her arise 

                               from that one true Flame.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Dirty Hands…and Grace

Return to the center….peel back the layers to reveal the core of this fruit of life…which has so much to teach in every bite.

It was like that yesterday- time and space moving so quickly that I barely had time to notice and understand- the emotions beneath the emotions, the particular flicker of every image that flashed through my peripheral vision.

Only later, did it come back- beneath a layer of my ordinary frustrations, a man reaching out his hand to shake mine, and I, reaching back, apologizing for my dirt-covered hand.  "That's ok, my hands are dirty too," he responded. I asked him his name; it was Anthony. We all introduced ourselves- me, my children, and a few others from my congregation.  Anthony had seen us planting flowers in front of the Hope Center in the city of Newburgh and had stopped by to say hello- and to ask about worms in the dirt he might use for fishing. We had come there earlier with a Welcome Sign for the homeless drop-in center, a sign the Religious Exploration class children had made.  We had come to light our chalice and sing songs in the parlor.  And we had come to plant flowers- our seeds of hope- for this new thing we might be making- new possibilities of extending love beyond our doors, new relationships, new connections.

It was just a beginning… but if my congregation's chalice has been lit in places off the hilltop (or outside of a church building) before, I do not know it. Perhaps in homes for small group gatherings, especially when we were desert-wandering in the years after a devastating fire, but a gathering in the inner city of Newburgh may be the first.

I did not feel as hopeful yesterday… our small number, my children's misbehavior during the short service, and the difficult hurried pace of the day before and after left me frayed and vulnerable.  I was worried this did not matter.  I was worried I did not matter.  I was worried efforts would be futile and foolish. But the sign and the flowers and the chalice did matter... all the people eating soup and playing cards at tables applauded as we unfurled the colorful sign, like all of us providing welcome for one another. A woman slept curled in the corner, as we hung the sign on the back wall above her, a sign that she too was welcome.

We could have waited, spent more time planning and promoting to bring more UU folks in… but I have been in more than enough meetings to last a lifetime, and now the call is to move beyond- in the spirit of prayer- to worship and to serve.  To allow the Spirit to lead us to unexpected places.  Places where my dirty hands meet other dirty hands and relationship happens from the ground up.

So, there was grace. And love. I recall "Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love."  The truth is when I look for God, I most often find him in those intimate moments between people- on the road to Emmaus, in the conversation between friends, in the dirty hands.


It was almost two years ago that I first visited the Hope Center.  I was seeking a spiritual director at a crossroads in my life- I was letting go, learning to embrace change, and feeling the longing to live more deeply from contemplation into call.  It was the beginning of my journey to become a spiritual director. At that time, after a walk in the woods, I reached out to the Hope Center for my own direction… it began with monthly meetings with my director… and led one-by one to more connections between people. It was like tilling the soil beneath a tree to see an entire tangled, interconnected root system.  And it is this system of connections which allows the tree to grow.

And so in the midst of another seemingly frustrating day- I have to step back and again get over myself,  get over my expectations of how I want things to be, and get over my rush to see things grow. Because already growing beneath the soil are things that cannot be seen, and nurturing grace already abounding.

It's not about me…and what I am planning to do.  It's about trust and following.  It's about slowing down and returning to the center, to the seed of God growing within. And it's about reaching out my hand- our hands- our dirt-stained hands- in love.

Connections, Marge Piercy

Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.
You cannot always tell by looking at what is happening
More than half a tree is spread out in the soil under your feet.
Penetrate quietly as the earthworm that blows no trumpet.
Fight persistently as the creeper that brings down the tree.
Spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden
Gnaw in the dark, and use the sun to make sugar.
Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.
Live a life you can endure: make life that is loving.
Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in, a thicket and bramble
wilderness to the outside but to us it is interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs.
This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always.
For every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting, after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The gentle breaking of the heart

"There is a breaking of the heart which is gentle....and there is a breaking which is violent and harmful, shattering it completely."- Mark the Ascetic

For Sufi's it is the rose which symbolizes the opening of the heart. As Rumi says, What was said to the rose that made it open was said to me here in my chest.

And as UU's sing- I know this rose will open, I know my fear will burn away. I know my soul will unfurl its wings. We hold flower communions of color, joy and hope in the midst of despair. 

For the Buddhists it is the lotus flower- The flower, as a closed bloom, is like the human heart. 
When enlightened with the teachings of the Buddha, it blossoms.

I think of Easter lilies in Christian resurrection- a symbol of new life. Lilies planted beside a cross...How many layers of the sun until we rise? 

Tonight I contemplate this garden of symbols as a way of imagining wisdom. We hold the seeds of contemplation...what new life shall emerge from its depths?  

Let me accompany this bursting forth.  From the depths of contemplation, may my heart break open gently, as from the seed emerges the flower of new life. 

(Quotes and images inspired and collected from spiritual director reflections, in anticipation of the 2014 SDI Emerging Wisdom Conference...)