Friday, February 22, 2013

Unexpected moments in Lent

Fire and Ice
     I find snow and ice to make passionate landscapes. The brisk air has a cold searing force that burns the lungs and skin like fire. The white and ice strip the landscape of color, down to its bare essentials. Icicles sculpt surreal sculptures in spikes and spirals. Water drains on granite rock behind melting ice sheets, creating shadowy forms like skittering bugs. Though some would say the landscape stark, especially given the flowering cherry trees in the Charleston landscape right now, I would have to disagree. Shivering at the brink of Dry Falls, near Highlands, N.C. recently, I watched a rainbow pop out of the mists, snow falling incongruously through bright beams of sun. My soul stirred with a passion to rival that of spring. 


     I'm stripping wallpaper this week in our bathroom.  I didn't plan for it to become a Lenten discipline.  I thought I would slap on some stripping gel, pull off the old sheets of wallpaper, and get on with the painting.  Ah hah!  Like most home improvement projects, it's just not that simple.  
     Some of the sheets come off smoothly and mostly intact. Others, for some reason, cling stubbornly to the wall, and pull off in pieces, leaving small bits of white backing paper firmly glued to the wall.  Then it's a slow, meticulous process of carefully scraping and peeling all the little bits off the wall, without gouging or chipping the drywall.  I've tried all sorts of remedies recommended by friends and by Google, fabric softener,  a vinegar solution, hot water.  It all comes down the slow process of scraping and peeling each wall, inch by inch, foot by foot.
     I want to rush the process and hurry on to the painting, the part I enjoy.  It's frustrating to go so slowly, moving inches at a time, struggling with every leftover scrap on the wall.  It's frustrating, but necessary, to end up with a smooth, clean wall ready for a fresh coat of paint.
      Sounds like a Lenten discipline after all. 

     So far, I am failing at my Lenten disciplines. I suppose this too is useful in reminding me that I am dust-on-my-way-back-to-dust very much in need of a Redeemer, but most days I would honestly rather be successful. Many of us at Providence are reading through Chris Seay's book A Place at the Table during this season. The daily readings (on which I have already fallen behind) are meant to draw us toward solidarity with our poor and hungry sisters and brothers around the world.
     Like many Americans in my socio-economic class, I have never known what it is to be truly hungry, to wonder where my next meal is coming from, or to be truly grateful for the gift of physical nourishment. So I decided that during Lent I would eat more mindfully - prepare simple meals, refrain from overindulgence, use locally grown produce, pray before every meal, put only healthy food into my body, save money on groceries that I could then donate to hunger relief for others. It sounded doable on Ash Wednesday. And yet, here I am only a week later, finding myself once again too rushed and too hungry and so my meal becomes whatever is most readily available in the pantry. 
     This morning I grabbed the loaf of cinnamon raisin bread, disappointed in myself. I prayed as I began eating my breakfast, and made my best attempt at mindfulness. I read the ingredients and thought about all the lives affected by the production of this meal. Where was the wheat grown, and what is life like for the farmers there? Do they get paid a fair wage or are they taken advantage of? What about the people who turn the wheat into flour? And those who work the vineyard where these raisins were once ripening grapes? Where does cinnamon come from anyway, and who harvests it? What of the cows who produced the milk I bought at Publix? Are they treated humanely, or more like machines devoid of feeling? 
     I found myself praying blessings upon the farmers and the mill workers and the bread distributors, and yes, even the cows! I gave thanks for the sunlight and rain and fertile soil and miracles of science and nature by which God makes the whole process possible. It may not be exactly the Lenten discipline I had envisioned, but this turned out to be a very mindful meal in its own way.


Thursday, February 14, 2013

Slowing down to the speed of Lent

      My mind has been swimming the last few weeks. Some of the reasons are good, others not. No matter the cause, I have been distracted and unfocused much of the time. Now we come to Lent, and I remember that the word is from a Latin root that means "slow." I can hear my college French professor reminding me to speak "lentement" so that my pronunciation would be clearer. Staring out over the water at high tide, appreciating the silence and calm, I'm reminded that I need this in my life. My prayer for these 40 days is to focus outside myself and live "lentement."


      At a recent women’s retreat, we shared an intimate communion. A soft light bathed the bread and pitchers in the chapel at St. Christopher’s, where we could see the beach scene beyond. I had the privilege of serving communion - of offering peace to fellow believers. I enjoyed seeing each familiar face pass my way. There was the friend I walked the beach with and the one with whom I shared laughs and late night talks as roommates. We shared secrets from the soul, and I made a new friend with whom I have lunch at work with now. Some of us did latin dance together, letting go to be silly and sweaty. What can I say? What happens at St. Christopher’s stays at St. Christopher’s.
       Many of us had to move heaven and Earth to be able to attend. I always try to make the effort, though, because I gain so much from the bonding with other women. These weekends create space for moments of holy communion, for us to share our broken bodies and our imperfect paths to peace. The caregivers who break themselves into so many pieces to care for friends and family, pause to receive care. When women gather like this, I have found magic always happens.


If you wish to know the Divine, feel the wind on your face
and the warm sun on your hand.  - Buddha

     While showing many of my South Africa photos to an exceedingly patient friend, I was struck again by my complete immersion into the natural world while there.  Giraffes, rhinos and baby rhinos, impala, kudu, wart hogs, zebra and so on could be just around the next turn in the road.  While sleeping in tents at camp, we woke at the very first rays of dawn to an outpouring of sound from birds, baboons, monkeys, elephants, and more that I couldn't even begin to identify. We ate our meals outside. We spent the days outside. 
     Back in my warm, safe home, sitting in front of my computer at work,  I realize how much I miss that connection to nature.  I watch the cardinals at my bird feeder and see the egrets and herons in the marsh on my runs.  But here I'm lost in a world of emails and schedules, of blue screens rather than blue sky.
    As we begin the Lenten journey, I'm choosing to walk the path outdoors, finding more time to be outside rather than inside, listening for the sounds of the earth, the smell of the rain, the touch of the wind.  It's not just good therapy, it's holy listening.


Friday, February 1, 2013

Travel, life maps and a journal tutorial

        On Monday, I put my daughter and her husband on a plane to Beijing, China.  So far, I've gotten a couple of text messages as they struggle to get phones and internet working.  They are okay and safe.  They are staying at the university in Beijing where they will be teaching English.      
      When I was a junior in college, my mom put me on a plane to England for a summer study abroad.  I landed in London and bought a bus ticket for Brighton to find my host parents for my study at the University of Sussex.  My host parents picked me up as soon as I arrived in Brighton.  They had two really cute little girls who were excited to have an American living with them.
      I wrote my mother later that week, I think, on crinkly blue international mail paper.  I was fine.  Mom got the letter two weeks later.
      I need to call my mom and apologize. 



     The path was clearly marked. As Hurley and I walked the extensive trails at our local county park, there could be no doubt of which way to go and which way not to go. If only, I thought, the map of my life were so clearly marked, with warnings of "Here be dragons" or "This way heartbreak lies." But even the marked trail at the park wasn't always that clearly marked, and I got lost. I slid in thick black mud, tripped more than once over tree roots, and very nearly stepped on a snake. And I saw unexpected beauty, prayed a few minutes longer, got more exercise than planned. What would I have missed over the years if I had that perfectly complete life map and tried to avoid all the warnings? God knows, I've never been much good at reading maps anyway. I think I'll take my chances on the rugged trail, where the gnarled roots are not just to trip me up, but also to bring life.


I shall live badly if I do not write, and I shall write badly if I do not live.
Francoise Sagar

Top 5 Tips to a Great Soul Baring Journal

It’s a sad day. I’m on the last few pages of my journal.  I’m loathe to give it up, so I’ve been writing smaller and smaller to save pages. This journal has been through so much with me. It’s been through a divorce and to the Grand Canyon and to the start of a new life. It’s been my confessor, friend, confidante and therapist.
I’m not sure what the magic is but somehow putting pen to paper draws insights I didn’t know I had until they literally flow onto the page. I stare amazed at what part of myself has a wisdom only accessed through ink. It slows me down and lets me process life. For those of you toying with the idea of a journal, but haven’t been able to get started, here are my top five tips.
  1. Go Plain Jane. Buy a basic, functional journal. This way there’s no pressure to have deep thoughts or perfect prose. I use a black, spiral bound one from Barnes and Noble and decorate the front with an image that has captured my fancy. This year’s has been a simple, Japanese brushstroke of a bird in a tree.
  2. Adopt the mindset anything goes. Write freestyle with different colored pens. Sketch, doodle, photograph, scrapbook, mindmap, brainstorm, press flowers, capture favorite quotes, draw mandelas. See it as a play space for creativity, for the words to flow.
  3. Pay attention to R & R - restlessness and resistance. These are signs to write. Sit with the feelings, explore them and write with abandon, even those things you might not tell your best friend - especially those things. (Forget that someone’s going to read it.) Bare your soul.
  4. Keep it with you. Mine goes to work, home, on the daily commute, in my backpack hiking, etc. Put down the small details and the big - whatever captures your fancy. One sentence entries count.
  5. Trust the truths will come. Believe you have the deepest wisdom about yourself and that God will bring truth through the inspirations. Writing is processing. Let it keep you honest and grounded.