Life and Randomness, summer

being before doing

It’s the day after Memorial Day, and summer break is officially here for the kids. It somehow doesn’t feel like I’m on break yet, but they are away next week, and I’m sure my 7-day stream of solitude will let summer’s real feeling come soon enough.

For now, it has been end-of-the-year awards and Boy Scout ceremonies and pool parties and a revolving door of neighborhood friends coming in and out. Popsicles and bare feet. It rained most of the day yesterday, and it is still falling as I type this. The house is a mess of legos and crayons, and I am trying to remember how numbered these days are to prevent my going crazy about the tiny doses of chaos.  I have such high hopes for this summer. Books to read and lines to write and spaces in my life and my house that need a reset. And yet I haven’t done a single piece of that yet because I’m chasing kids and making lunch to clean it up and then making a snack to clean it up and then making dinner to clean it up. And rinse and repeat.

My Richard Rohr emails come every night while I’m sleeping, and I use them to center myself before the chaos of the day. Every week, he takes a different focus, and for a good three years now, I have watched my life unfold in ways that always seem to parallel what he is writing about that particular week.  This week’s focus is on purpose and vocation, and he’s been providing passages from Parker Palmer’s work.

Palmer says, “[My newborn granddaughter] did not show up as raw material to be shaped into whatever image the world might want her to take. She arrived with her own gifted form, with the shape of her own sacred soul. . . . Thomas Merton calls it true self. Quakers call it the inner light, or ‘that of God’ in every person. The humanist tradition calls it identity and integrity. No matter what you call it, it is a pearl of great price. . . .The deepest vocational question is not ‘What ought I to do with my life?’ It is the more elemental and demanding ‘Who am I? What is my nature?'”

I know all of this and have heard it in so many forms and ways, and yet I still forget sometimes. It’s so easy to get caught up in the lists and the goals and the specific hopes and forget the essence of all of it, forget what runs underneath all of that. That who you are is the platform under what you do. That being comes before doing.

Palmer also references Frederick Buchner who insists that vocation is “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” It’s a line that keeps running through my head as guidance for big picture questions – like what is my path – and little moment dilemmas – like how to find a happy balance in these four walls. Where my gladness meets what is needed is where the sweet spot exists. (I re-listened to Rob Bell’s “You Listening to You” last week, and he comments on this as well. My purpose cannot be different than what brings me gladness. God doesn’t design us that way.)

I’m not sure if it is a woman thing or a parent thing or just an aspect of my personality that I can sometimes be a little scared of following gladness for the sake of joy and nothing else. I have viewed it as an extra, a bonus, instead of a guidepost to determine if I am on the right track. I lean in and I exhale and I have fun in the moment, but then it’s easy to roll that soundtrack in the back of your head that tells you that it’s not that simple. But what if it is? I’m not talking about the low level happy pursuits that bounce in and out and don’t linger. But that hum where the real stuff is, that rushing current underneath, the one that’s quiet but real.

I’m not really sure where I’m going with this today except to say that this season always brings out the urge to slow it down. Hot afternoons and late daylight and no pressing schedules or school night routines. I’m vowing now to remember the who before the what, the being before the doing. And I guess most of all, just allow myself to follow the gladness and let that guide me. As Rilke says, “Let life happen to you. Believe me; life is in the right, always.”

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gratitude

in and out of time

I’ve been dreaming lately of a house where I used to live. Over and over, night after night, this house makes its way into my imagination.

Sometimes dreams seem like nothing more than leftover, jumbled images and scenes from my recent days, but when they come to me repeatedly, I cannot help but pay attention.

I never go inside of this house in the dream; I only see it from the exterior view. Once I stood in its kitchen with a crowd of people and looked out the windows into what was the backyard. But every other time – and this has been night after night for weeks now – I only see it from the outside. Something is always altered about it. The newest owners have put in a swimming pool, or reshaped the driveway, or built an addition. Last night I was perched farther away from it not even realizing I was there but glanced over to see that there it was again, this time with little yellow lights strung up all around the porch. One wild night, I rode a roller coaster through the thick woods and hills all around it. Another night, I waved to the neighbors from the yard. And in every one of these dreams, I meet it with no sadness or loss or panic or longing. Just everyday observation — sometimes fascination, and always curiosity. Familiar and unfamiliar, too.

I moved in 2004, 2005, 2007, 2013, and 2015. That 6 year stretch in the middle was spent in that house.

It was old(er) and drafty, and when we bought it, the carpet was terrible, and every wall seemed covered in patterned wallpaper from 1988. We spent the first night sleeping on a mattress on the floor and the following few years improving it bit by bit. We eventually bought furniture to fill every room and landscaped the yard which began as a massive muddy slope and ended as a shaded grassy hill. I brought two babies home there. Nothing matched, and none of our appliances were new until the dishwasher broke and we had to get another one. It was nothing special. But somehow everyone who ever crossed the threshold of that old house loved it and commented that it felt like home. In the end, they maybe loved it more than I did because I grew lonely in the old house on the hill with no nearby neighbors, and we grew tired of the constant need to fix and repair.

Life was so simple there though. In hindsight, naively so. Like Eve before she bit the apple and understood everything. It feels like a hundred lifetimes ago.

I hadn’t thought about this house at all in my years since. Until now that it revisits me night after night, dream after dream, in every way and angle you can imagine. Always somehow altered from what it was before but familiar enough that it’s recognizable to me.

I’ve been browsing dream dictionaries, reading Thomas Moore’s ideas, and thinking thinking, thinking. Turning it all over again and holding it up to the light. I’m not sure dreams have one perfect meaning and literal interpretation we are supposed to read as though it is a code giving us answers. But I think the subconscious finds a way to talk to us through our dreams when the outside noise may be too loud for us to hear it otherwise.

I was reintroduced to TS Eliot’s Four Quartets recently when I was studying something else. That line nearly knocks me over — the way forward is the way back. We always end up where we started. But we always look a little different than when we began.

I’ve bitten the apple, obviously. Things are not naively simple anymore. Everything is different. But there’s another level of ease and simplicity and truth to my life now that I don’t think I have felt since I’ve left that place. Maybe not ever.

Here we are again. Sometimes my back door is a little drafty, and nothing matches, and my appliances are not new. My dishwasher broke this month, so I finally ordered a new one. And when we walk in the door, it feels like home. Like a place to jump off from.

Perhaps this is why, in those dreams, I am not haunted or sad or grieving or knocking on that door longing to go inside. Every night, I simply see it, altered somehow, and I take a look as best I can with a little curiosity and a healthy disbelief that this thing is really real. That the simple life is here again in another form.

Later in that poem, Elliot goes on to say “For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time, the distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight, … 
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all, but you are the music.”

I think my current season of simple truth was heard so deeply that I didn’t even hear it at all – until my dreams had to show me again and again. I hear it now. I’m hearing the music and seeing this moment in and out of time. The way forward is the way back. 

 

gratitude

a different kind of happy

I don’t know how it’s been 13 days since I have written in this space. We acclimated to the post-holiday, real life schedule again. The semester began. It snowed last weekend, a rarity in Atlanta. And now here we are with a some springtime weather a week later. That is more or less the summary of my past few weeks with the details left out. And it’s always the details that matter anyhow, isn’t it?

There are pieces of my days that I want to write about, but I never sit down to do it lately. And there are pieces of my days that I am not ready to write about yet but know I one day will. I love writing and the clarity it offers me, but I am also finding that when you are writing about something, you’re standing on the outside of that thing looking in. This is something I love to do in retrospect, glance inward at something after it has come and gone and see it with new eyes. But lately I feel like I don’t want to ruin things in their immediacy by putting on my writer eyes to dissect it. Sometimes you just need to let things be. Breathe in and breathe out and whisper gratitude for what it is in that moment and do all the thinking later. I find lately that I might try to write about something, and the words stop short of where I want them to be. They aren’t ready to come yet.

Part of this could be that I have spent so much of the past few years writing about pain, and it feels good to do that – to search and try to find some kind of meaning in it. But when things are good, it feels different somehow. Like I don’t need to search for the meaning by digging through my thoughts word-by-word. With joy, you just have to be still….which is also hard sometimes.

I am (like everyone else these days) a huge Brene Brown fan, and I know she tells us, “Joy is the most vulnerable emotion we experience. And if you cannot tolerate joy, what you do is you start dress rehearsing tragedy.” I do this all the time. When things are good, especially after such a long season of hard, I dress rehearse tragedy in my head. I think of the thousand ways that the other shoe could drop. The million pieces of my life that could go wrong and create a mess to clean up. Joy is a terrifying emotion, especially after you have survived heartbreak in any form and you realize what the other side really feels like. It seems so ridiculous to type that, but it’s true. I don’t know why I can’t just let happiness be what it is without the worry. I am getting perhaps a little better at it, but I’m not there yet.

I do find my joy is deeper now though. The happy is a different kind of happy from what it was before. It can be big things or little things – the swell of a particular song I love on the speakers, the feel of home in the midst of a busy week, a leisurely walk with the kids in the woods. I feel every single second just a little bit deeper than before.

Life in general is more terrifying than it used to be because I know more intimately what pain feels like, and after these past few years, I think I’m almost operating from a sense of struggle as my norm. But now that the dust has settled and it feels like luck and quiet are starting to blow my direction, my joy hums in a deeper spot in my chest as well. It radiates and warms in a way it never did before. I guess that’s what people mean when they say life and age and experience can make you wiser. I feel it all. Good and bad and ugly and beautiful.

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It took courage to do what I have done in the past two years. To look pain and heartbreak and difficulty and even death in the face and muster the courage to know that I would walk through it stronger than how I began. But it also takes courage to do what I am doing now. To be happy without asking questions and without anticipating tragedy around the bend. Brown also reminds us, “Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor – the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’ Over time, this definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But in my opinion, this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences — good and bad. Speaking from our hearts is what I think of as ‘ordinary courage.'”

Courage is a heart word, no doubt. And I already know I have it, but now I get to use it perhaps for a different purpose. To be honest and speak openly about who I am and what I want. To look happiness in the face and know that I am worthy of receiving it with no strings attached. To know that this is my time and my season and my own life to mold any way I choose. To see the wide open space in front of me as opportunity for happiness and fulfillment rather than scary wilderness. Sometimes joy is just that, pure and true.

Books, divorce, gratitude

bodhichitta

It’s the final full week of summer vacation as Jude starts kindergarten in ten days. (I can’t believe it!) I’m wrapping up my summer reading, and I’m feeling grateful that I’ve read more of my own choosing this summer than I have in probably the past six years or so. It’s hard enough to find the time to read as a mom, but then add the fact that my job requires some intense reading as well, and I rarely get to immerse myself in my own books.

I’ve read all kinds of things in the past few months, and it amazes me how all of these seemingly different works are connecting into one big mural of meaning for me.  There is so much power in the written word because of the immense power of human connection.  It’s a concept I try to relay to my students as the central thread of why I’m teaching them to read analytically and to write clearly.  As C.S. Lewis says, “We read to know we are not alone.” We learn through each other, and I have no doubt that God speaks to us through one another as well. In Christianity they call it The Holy Spirit.  In other religions, they call it by a different name, but it is the same idea.  I feel as though it’s only through the past few years of my life, and especially the past few months, that seeing the divine in all of us is made real and clear for me. Namaste in the truest sense.

Looking back again as the dust settles, I can see this was an element responsible for the disconnect in my marriage as well.  Motherhood changed me at my core in a million ways, but namely it made me more spiritual, more grateful, more aware of the big picture.  I always felt that everything happened for a reason, but after having children I felt the presence of the divine more than ever and could see that hand orchestrating elements of my life and reflected in even my small daily experiences. I don’t think that philosophy was matched in my partner at all – actually I know for certain it wasn’t because this is something we talked about in the final days. And that is okay.  My path is not the same as everyone else’s. But in hindsight, I’m not sure that I could grow spiritually the way I have in these past months with such a mismatched mirror in my own home. I see that clearly now.

Everyone’s path is different, and mine is my own. Spirituality means nothing if you don’t hold it close, and it takes holding it up to the light, trying it on for size, and seeing what feels right to make it real.  I was flipping through albums at a family reunion recently, and I found a beautiful image of an old baptism.  This is the way of my family for generations, and I know Southern Baptists get a bad reputation sometimes for some things that are neither here nor there on this specific post of mine (for another time), but what I love about that blend of faith is that it is held close and personal.  The idea of being born again into something new only happens if you believe it from the inside outward and do the work yourself to maintain a connection to God. Baptism in the water is meant to outwardly mark a change in who you are.  You are emptied of the old and washed clean again by your relationship with the divine, and now the divine resides in you.

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And sometimes those sacred waters of baptism aren’t reflected as a literal pool of water but a threshold in your life and your own experiences. A crossroads when you are out with the old and in with the new, so to speak. My path is separating from people I’ve known, not just from my former spouse.  And I’m learning to be okay with that. There are lots of complicated reasons for some of these separations; divorce always changes your peer group.  My core of closest friends is just the same, and I can’t explain how incredibly grateful I am for their help and encouragement. But there are a few on the outside of my close circle who have fallen away. They are another example of the things I’m letting go – as I’ve alluded to before.  David Whyte has a poem that states, “Anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.” And I think that sounds insulting somehow – implying I am bigger than someone else. But sometimes I think “too small” can just mean they are not what I need right now where I am on my own journey. And to be fair, I am likely not what they need either.

When thinking about how I am changing, who has fallen away and who hasn’t, who is “bringing me alive” and who isn’t, I didn’t really have words for how this separation has happened or why. But when I read Pema Chodron’s work I wrote about before, she has a chapter on the Buddhist concept of bodhichitta which is a Sanskrit word meaning a “noble or awakened heart” – or as she explains, “this kinship with the suffering of others, this inability to be able to observe it from afar” or “the discovery of our soft spot.” I’ve rolled that one around in my head often these past few weeks, and it illuminated a lot for me.

I was having lunch with a good friend and mentor last month and we were discussing privately one of these people I’m referring to and how hard it has been to regain footing in my life without someone who was once present often, and she revealed that she always perceived this individual to be “a lightweight” which I thought was a perfect description.  Someone who treads in shallow waters because it’s easier or because it’s comfortable – or maybe just because they aren’t there yet on the capacity to process something greater.  It’s far easier to distance ourselves from pain though, far easier to make it shameful and tell someone to hide it or move on quickly than to hold bodhichitta for a moment and let that pain penetrate your own heart. I can think of countless examples in my past where I listened to people shame others for showing pain and weakness or where I listened to others refuse empathy and compassion for someone else. These are things I’m now ashamed to even admit that I tolerated, and I simply don’t have the space or energy for that in my life anymore.

I think people awake to their own bodhichitta in their own time. I can keep people on the peripheral of my life when they see things through a lens of very little compassion, but I can’t maintain close connections with them anymore. And I’m seeing more and more each day that this idea has very little to do with our society’s concept of religion.  Many of these personalities that have fallen away from me are seated in a pew every single Sunday, but somehow they haven’t softened their hearts.  They don’t have eyes to see it.

And so often I think this relates to fear.  So many people want to be seen as perfect with the house and the kids and the prosperity that they think defines them. To admit that you feel fear or hurt or embarrassment, to admit wrongdoing, and to feel in your core that there is suffering in the world and a battle within each of us – all of those things are uncomfortable.  All of those things require admitting that you are not perfect and not always right. So few people are willing to step out of the skin they are wearing and own up to all of these things.

Chodron explains, “Because bodhichitta awakens tenderness, we can’t use it to distance ourselves.  Bodhichitta can’t be reduced to an abstraction about the emptiness of pain.  We can’t get away with saying, ‘There is nothing happening and nothing to do.’ … Spiritual awakening is frequently described as a journey to the top of a mountain. … In the process of discovering bodhichitta, the journey goes down, not up. It’s as if the mountain pointed toward the center of the earth, not the sky. Instead of transcending the suffering of all creatures, we move toward the turbulence and doubt… We explore the reality and unpredictability of insecurity and pain, and we try not to push it away.” The challenge is not pushing it away, not holding it distant from us because it makes us uncomfortable.  I’m finding that seeing another’s pain, whether that is a close friend or a stranger, is so hard for many people.

And the reason it is hard is because it turns a lens on our own selves.  It shows you where you are gripping too tightly, and it brings about the horrifying thought that the pain could be yours as well and that you are not safe from it.  I know this because I have done it in the past as well.  When you rationalize the million reasons that could never happen to you, it’s a way of trying so hard to convince yourself of a concept that is simply not true.

What I said before about these very different books working together to paint one big picture for me? I’m taking a big leap now from Pema Chodron to Amy Poehler which seems ridiculous, but bear with me. Poehler’s book (which you should read this very second if you haven’t yet) includes a chapter on friendship in your forties, and I am not quite there yet in age, but I related to her words so much in light of my changing landscape these days.  She says when you are forty and have gained life experience, “You can read people’s energies better, and this hopefully means you get stuck talking to less duds….Gone are the days (hopefully) when you take everything personally and internalize everyone’s behavior.  You get better at knowing what you want and need… Lastly, because you are a superhero, you are really good at putting together a good team. You can look around the room and notice the other superheroes because they are the ones noticing you.  The friends you have over forty are really juicy. They are highly emulsified and full of flavor.  Now that you’re starting to have a better sense of who you are, you know better what kind of friend you want and need….I am interested in people who swim in the deep end. I want to have conversations about real things with people who have experienced real things. I’m tired of talking about movies and gossiping about friends. Life is crunchy and complicated and all the more delicious.”

To me, these “superheroes” are those who are awake to the concept of bodhichitta, those who can drop the ego for a moment and let some discomfort set in. Those who have encountered past pain or disappointment or mistakes and aren’t afraid to talk about it. And as I form new friendships with people I am yet to meet and one day look at the prospect of future romantic relationships, that is my biggest test.  Are you awake to bodhichitta and all that entails?

Because here’s what I’m finding, friends.  Bodhichitta does not mean that you are sad and full of sorrow all the time as you reflect on the miseries around you and feel empathy for others. In fact, it brings quite the opposite.  It’s only when you let in the sorrow of the world, when you sink into empathy, and when you embrace imperfection that you can find true joy. Happiness is something else entirely, and though this may sound strange, I’m growing tired of “happy” people who are not joyful. True joy cannot depend on outside circumstances at all, and true joy can only come when you let it all in.

In his lengthy work “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”  Wordsworth writes that when “we are laid asleep in body, and become a living soul: while with an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things.” He’s referring to transcendence through nature as that was his route to the divine, but I see those lines resonating in my own life as well. When we “are laid asleep in body” and strip down the ego and feel that harmony or kinship with someone else’s pain or imperfections, that’s when we see into the life of things.  And at this moment in my own life, this crossroads in the journey, so to speak, I simply can’t maintain connections with those who don’t see it. Looking back, I see how this past few months has worked like a sieve for me. All the hindrances fell away, and those left are the real gems – the ones who are helping me grow bigger and propel forward to a life that is so much richer than the one I’ve left behind.

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