story stones

“Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness…

 

…You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore…

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

It is I you have been looking for,

and then goes with you everywhere

like a shadow or a friend.”

–Naomi Shihab Nye—excerpted from “Kindness”

 

Tonight I witnessed something so beautiful that it called this poem to mind immediately. In this world we talk so much about the importance of choosing to be kind, but in this poem, Nye speaks to the interwoven relationship that empathy and kindness share.

Lately, I have been helping a dear friend facilitate a book study at her church. The book? Rachel Held Evans’InspiredThis book is a gorgeous testament to one woman’s struggle with the difficulties and questions she found in reading and understanding the Bible as a part of her faith life. Evans reveals through her vulnerability,  her creativity, and her honesty the mystery and frustration brought about in wrestling with faith. Yet she also carries her reader to the other side of the struggle in smart and sensitive ways. This book came to me when I needed it and sharing with others has been the greatest gift.

Over the last couple of weeks, we have been working through a chapter on Deliverance Stories…stories of times in the wilderness…stories of struggle that end with physical, emotional, mental salvation…stories of striving to know ourselves all over again. In order to really dive into this material, we couldn’t convene in conversation about Evans’ text or about the Biblical texts she references. In order to truly realize the weight and depth of these stories, we needed to reveal the truth of our own time spent in the wilderness. We needed to be vulnerable and to trust each other. Our small community needed to believe that our stories would be cherished and held as sacred.

That kind of bond is tough to create 4 weeks into a once a week study.

Yet, somehow, it happened. Tonight, I watched the women of this group share their deliverance stories in an incredibly bold and courageously honest way. I sat in awe of their willingness to not simply narrate their stories loosely but to extend insight and emotion that allowed us to walk the path with them…into the dark and disorienting wilderness and then out to the other side. I walked away from that room not only knowing each member of this small group better, but knowing myself better too.

Stories have this effect, when we are available to listen and to be present, and when we are willing to share our own honestly with those around us…when we feel we can let others in. Shared lived experiences create a sense of empathy within us that allows us to live more deeply into our community, to keep kindness more readily available. We are more likely to live in love and act in kindness when we have access to the knowledge that there is always more to the story than what we think we see, what we think we know. We are more likely to be better humans to each other, to celebrate each other when we empathize rather than judge, when we lean in rather than walk away.

Tonight was a reminder…of the comfort that can be found in community, of the value of story, of the nuances and shades of kindness. And I will walk into tomorrow carrying the lessons of humility, empathy, and honesty that inspired that reminder.

(Day 6 Positivity Project)

lost

Years ago, my husband and I, who grew up practicing different faiths, found a church that welcomed us and in some way made each of us feel at home, feel as part of a family. And honestly, for the last 8 or so years, that church has been our family. My gratitude for these people extends beyond the capacity and potential of any words I could scribe here.  They have supported me in prayer and lifted me in love as I wandered aimlessly through illness after illness, surgery after surgery. They have supported my family and loved my kids as if they were their own. My church family is comprised of a group of individuals who remain reliable in every situation. Being with them in that sacred space on Sunday morning, singing and praying in praise fills me up and grows my heart. My time at this church has included opportunities to explore my faith deeply–to question it, to dig into it, to wonder, to wander away from it only to return with strength and new understanding. This faith-work created in me an unshakeable foundation–because when you understand what you believe, you begin to own it. My faith stands firm.

But my heart was broken this week, and I don’t know how to return to church.

My church family bears no fault in this heartache. My love for them is unwavering. However, the church at large made an intentional decision this week after many months of study and deliberation. I am certain there are parts of this determination that I do not understand (at least I’m hoping so), but what I do understand is that I cannot support an institution that actively, knowingly and willingly discriminates. In doing so, I believe I would be hurting more people than I am helping. In my complicity, I believe that I would be setting an example for my children that condones discrimination (this world is hard enough as we struggle to own our implicit bias, I really can’t allow myself to lend a hand in worsening that complication by participating in and donating to an organization that knowingly discriminates).

I understand that this decision only affirms the rules that were already in place. But the intentionality of the decision…the fresh look with the same answer…makes it different. It just does. And the tumult of my heart reflects that. And I don’t know how to settle the upheaval in my mind. I don’t know how to qualify what feels like selfishness in staying because I am loved by this church, when others are only tolerated and not fully validated. I just don’t.

My faith in the Lord has not wavered and so I reach out in prayer…seeking answers…seeking understanding…seeking an easier decision that can’t be granted.  Humans are fallible. We screw it up a lot of the time, but grace is what saves each of us. Whether it be the grace that we extend each other as we empathize or offer forgiveness or the grace that God has gifted us with out of sheer love because we are His creation. All of us. Not just a few people. Not just a select group. All of us. My faith has not wavered. I will continue to reach out to others in love. I will continue to work towards a servant’s heart. I will continue doing my best to be a light for good in the world rather than an abyss of darkness and hate. I will continue.

Tomorrow, I will return to my church on more time so that I can listen and seek understanding, clarity. I will return with hope in my heart, but in this moment, I fear that hope might be futile. I fear everything is about to shift in ways I am not prepared for. In this situation, while I rest in my prayer, I also exist in the fear and hurt this decision has generated.

(there is a Mary Oliver poem that I can’t find right now that I want to include–I will add it when I am back with my books tomorrow).

(Day 56–8 full weeks of blog-a-day. I struggled with whether or not to write this one. I’ve struggled with that for days. But my heart is heavy and I needed to put the words out there. I know there are humans on the other side of this issue and all kind of folks in between. But this blog is a reflection of my thoughts in a moment and this is where I am today.)

turmoil of heart

As a Christian, I am called to love. As a human in a world that bears the burden of far too much hate and discrimination (even thinly veiled or disguised by clever terminology), I feel this call deeply. And in this particular moment I feel like it is important to note that love demands more than tolerance.

Love cannot simply be the absence of bigotry that tolerance implies.

Love must fill that absence with generosity, selflessness, empathy, and affirmation. Love must reach out its hand to those ignored by the rest…even and especially when it is difficult, uncomfortable, frightening. Love must see the worth of the human being instead of the label we so easily assign. Love implies a willingness to reach beyond the simplicity of merely existing ignorantly side by side…a willingness to be in relationship with each other, to have a responsibility to each other. Love requires an open heart that recognizes a world beyond what is comfortable or familiar. Love understands that acquiescence is complicity, so love uses its voice for good…love stands up for and amplifies the voices of those who have been marginalized…and love does this knowing repercussions might be vast but also knowing there is no other way.

Love demands courage.

Love imagines boundless goodness.

Love acts accordingly.

It doesn’t have to be easy. It just has to be done. We just have to try.

escape

It’s been a Mary Oliver kind of day. Her words have nourished me as I meandered rather blindly throughout the sometimes chaotic moments of the last fourteen hours.

I was particularly struck by her poem “Messenger” today. I’ve read this poem before and thought “how lovely”, but today, well, today, it was medicinal. As I read the words and took in their meaning, my inner self paused, took a breath and relaxed. This was the poem that I needed…it was the reminder of my place and my purpose that was absolutely necessary to survival. And this is why I love poetry as I do. It meets me wherever I am and extends what I need in order to find my center.

Today, this is what I needed to read:

from “Messenger” by Mary Oliver

“My work is loving the world.

Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird–

equal seekers of sweetness.

Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.

Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

 

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?

Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me

keep my mind on what matters,

which is my work,

 

which is mostly standing still and learning to be

astonished.”

There is more to this poem, of course, but this is the part that struck me most. This idea that “My work is loving the world…my work,/which is mostly standing still and learning to be/astonished” was what I needed to sustain me today. Because when it comes down to it, no matter how much work I do at school, no matter how stressful that can be, my real work is loving the world. Period. (as an aside, I sort of really love the complete sentence in that first line–it is so delicate and simple as the deepest truths have the potential to be). And sometimes the reminder of that calling to love the world in all its complexity and effortless beauty is required. We blind ourselves in the worries and wants of the world and in our inability to ever really be enough in any given moment and we forget that without the richness of the most basic love–a love that allows us to be still and astonished, the rest is quite worthless.

So, as I proceeded through a day of days, I stopped to observe the wisps of clouds gliding across a serene blue sky, to notice the blades of grass jutting through the rocks, to feel the breeze on my face and the warm embrace of the sunlight. I got out of my own head, saw past my “stuff” and my imperfection and was in the world with eyes open to its wonder. Grateful for such a gift as those moments. Grateful for Mary Oliver for steering me there and grateful for poetry for speaking a language that my heart and mind crave in all moments of all days.

(Day 20–which feels like a landmark?)

 

 

answer

Stress has stolen my sleep, or at least its quality, in recent days. I am incessantly exhausted, running solely on a combination of adrenaline and sugar, as my sleep has been interrupted, disturbed, upset. Stress is a clever thief, often lurking quietly in the shadows until just the moment when I attempt to rest, until just the moment when I am seeking the solace of slumber, the peace and healing offered in sleep. Those are the moments when my stress furtively tiptoes into the forefront of my mind and my brain begins to work harder, ideas and worries and concerns flood in, my heart rate picks up and my eyes open…staring at the ceiling. I don’t want to give in and get up; however, the longer I lay there, the more the stress intensifies. Until I suddenly realize that since I’ve been up worried for so long, I’ll never get enough sleep and then my stress is compounded.

Despite the seeming routine of these events, I never see it coming. Instead, it is just all of a sudden present, and once that occurs, reason and relaxation are out of mind and the swiftness of their eventuality is called into question.

Regular exercise was my greatest outlet for relieving this kind of stress and for deepening my sleep. But since last November when my inner ear decided to throw its own kind of wild party, regular exercise has become more of an intermittent affair. I am just not feeling well enough regularly enough to make a habit of it–to be able to maintain the discipline. That is a true frustration point because I honestly enjoy working out–I honestly enjoy pushing myself and my body to the outer limits of my fitness ability and my body has essentially told me, “Um, no thank you. That time is done.” I am trying to convince myself that walking is a viable fitness plan until more healing has taken place and I am ready to do more. But this all or nothing mentality that I am apt to adopt sees that remedy as circumspect. I don’t  want to just have to walk–I want to be able to do push ups and box jumps and to lift weights. I don’t want to be restricted anymore. I want to be well. I want to be and feel like myself…my best self.

And in that frustration, guilt is born. I know I should just be grateful for being mostly well and not be greedy about what workout I am relegated to. Honestly, I should be grateful for a great many things.

And that has become my newest remedy for stress–I turn in toward my gratitude. When I focus on what I am thankful for, I make a conscious turn away from stress. As I focus on the positivity specific to my life with intentionality, my brain slows down and my heart rate calms. My breathing is more methodical and my gratitude list suddenly becomes a prayer of sorts lulling me into a calm and escorting me toward peaceful sleep.

It doesn’t work every time, this gratitude journey of mine. Sometimes, I just have to work through the stress without avoidance. Sometimes, I have to face it. But sometimes, most often, I can extend myself the grace of recentering my thinking.  And when I am able to do so, I am a better human…and not just because of better sleep, but also because learning to see the world through the lens of a grateful heart is a mind shift that heals and offers hope. And hope, when we work to find it, not only changes our hearts for the better, but also our actions. Where there is hope and gratitude, stress cannot reside.

(Day 19 of this king cake season writing challenge…I for real almost quit tonight after starting three different blogs and getting nowhere with them. Nothing to show for them other than some unfinished saved ramblings. And I was so exhausted and had so many other things to do…but I just felt compelled to prove this one to myself…that I wouldn’t give into the temptation of quitting…that I would honor myself and remain dedicated)

impact

Ask any student who has set foot in my classroom and they will tell you “Mrs. Clark is super passionate about words…words matter after all.” And they would be right, I am sort of constantly in awe of what we as humans are able to do simply in the arrangement and selection of the words we wield. We can brandish them dangerously, carelessly damaging others with rancor and vitriol. Or, we can employ them meaningfully, intentionally provoking thought with depth and weight.

One of the reasons poetry resonates with me the way that it does is that I find myself in constant wonder of the poet’s word craft–of their ability to be so precise in their execution of word economy, while at the same time creating gorgeous imagery or intensity or moments to pause and wonder or heightened emotion or all of these and more. It is the surprise in the organization that gets me, the arrangement I would never have considered that drops my jaw. I love the form that creates the content as much as the content itself.

~~~“Breakage” by Mary Oliver~~~

I say all of this because Mary Oliver died today. Mary Oliver was a poet that I believe, honestly, could reach anyone as she wrote honestly and simply yet somehow in her simple language led readers into the complexity of human emotion and experience. She didn’t require fancy forms or intricate language; she didn’t write beyond her experience, no matter how simple the moments may have been; she didn’t reach for what wasn’t true to her and in maintaining that sincerity, her readers were able to find their true selves in her work.

~~~ From “The Journey” by Mary Oliver~~~

“…

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly recognize as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do–

determined to save

the only life you could save.”

In the natural world Mary Oliver sought solace and God and understanding of life and its proverbial mysteriousness and through the natural world she brought the rest of us solace and God and an understanding of life. She opened my eyes to not just the beauty in the world around me but to its nuance and to a new way of paying attention to it. Her words, her insight, her description all still my soul.

~~~“Fall” by Mary Oliver~~~

(the last stanza here is just perfection and will alter your perception of rain forever)

And then there are the Mary Oliver poems that walked me through grief at times where grief felt heavier that what I could shoulder alone. Except, I wasn’t alone. She had shouldered it already. She had walked this path and she recorded it in her writing–with hope, with honesty and with love. Through loss, through illness I have almost religiously turned to Mary Oliver’s work as a sort of prayer when my prayers were sort of lost in the wilderness. I turned to her work to restore my hope and my faith, and she never failed me, not one single time.

 “Praying” by Mary Oliver

“It doesn’t have to be

The blue iris, it could be

weeds in a vacant lot, or a few

small stones; just

pay attention, then patch

 

a few words together and don’t try

to make them elaborate, this isn’t

a contest but the doorway

 

into thanks, and a silence in which

another voice may speak.”

 

“…the doorway/into thanks…” Mary Oliver’s work will continue to be a part of my daily reading, my daily stillness, my daily search for peace in the chaos of the world. My gratitude is without bounds–not just for a life well lived, but for a dedication to sharing that life with others through her words…for the impression she has made in my heart and the impact she has made in my vision and in my life. Mary Oliver may have left the physical world today, but she has also left behind her words–a wealth, a storehouse of beauty and reminders of goodness. And that is forever.

(Day 12…I was so sad to hear about Mary Oliver’s passing today, but in writing about her work, I found so much more. Glad for this outlet that allowed for that to happen)

 

unison

It began with a solitary voice.

She stood in front of the congregation, no music, no accompaniment…just a lone voice singing out, filling the silence.

“As I went down in the river to pray/ Studying about that good old way/ And who shall wear the starry crown/ Good Lord, show me the way!” 

Then suddenly two more voices joined hers and there were three voices singing together, filling the silence. Two by two, sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, walked up and joined each other standing side by side singing. As more members of the choir and other church goers joined in and the sound of those beautiful voices singing in unison crescendoed, I found myself overwhelmed, tears welling.

I am easily moved, so tears like this aren’t uncommon. But today was different. Today, it wasn’t the words or even the beautiful voices. Today was a realization.

~~~

We live in a world where voices seem more often to scream out in discord rather than to join together harmoniously. Lone voices would rather be correct than work together to uncover what light and goodness might come from that union. Barriers go up so fast and they are built so solidly that it becomes impossible to even make sense of what is being said on the other side–we don’t hear the song, we just hear the noise…and the noise is loud. It feels unknown and unfamiliar and uncomfortable and what we don’t know frightens us so we fortify the barriers instead of asking questions, instead of seeking to understand. Our barriers are decorated carefully with words, phrases, posts and reposts so others will view them with reverence and maybe even fear. In their reinforcement, our barriers make us feel important. They make us feel right. They convince us that we don’t all have to live in this world together, that we really can separate ourselves and not interact, let alone interact civilly.

~~~ poetic interlude care of Robert Frost~~~

My students are currently conducting a little study on sonnets. One of the greatest common factors in the earliest sonnets is a diligent rhyme scheme. My kids tend to  love this quality because to many of them, rhyming poems feel like “real poems”…don’t get me started on this… Those rhymes echoing the same sound as the end of the line before, adding emphasis, adding rhythm also add a bit of comfort for my students who sometimes find themselves disconcerted by free verse. The earliest poems and stories we come to know in life rhyme, the first poems we write and are praised for often rhyme and so the rhyme in these sonnets brings on nostalgia for what was once deemed proper and correct. Breaking free from this concept that all poetry rhymes kind of terrifies some kids. It calls them to venture into territory they aren’t certain of, begs them to tear down barriers, requires them not to rely on the echo, on the creature comfort, but to create something that resonates with those around them for other reasons–meaningful reasons they must consider and craft. That is difficult work.

~~~a sonnet interlude care of Elizabeth Bishop~~~

I was working with a group of third through sixth graders at church one week and in the middle of a pretty lively conversation about judgments and bias and stereotypes asked them what it really means to love our neighbor. The inevitable eye roll and rote answer came my way. “Treat others the way we want to be treated.” Yes, but what does that look like? If we are truly called to love one another, what does that mean? How can we live into that? They thought for a bit and were hesitant to respond but once they did, the answers rolled in beautifully and honestly–“well, it’s hard because we are supposed to love everyone and not everyone is nice” “it means we are supposed to be kind” “it means that if someone is sitting alone at recess, I should go sit with them” And more…answers and examples unique to their daily experience came pouring in. It was a good reminder conversation with kids who have been taught this idea all of their lives. I ended the class by asking them to think about what specific actions they would really need to take in order to honor this commitment to love our neighbors. I joined in this thinking because I don’t think any of us are ever too old for this kind of intentional living, intentional loving. We all agreed that the things we thought about would be tough, but so is living in a world where people shy away from loving others just because sharing that love, sharing that grace, sharing that kindness feels like a risk. But we also agreed that it would be a risk worth taking.

~~~poetic interlude care of Naomi Shihab Nye-stick with this one, it is worth it~~~

I wasn’t even going to attend church today. I didn’t feel well last week and have so much work to do and so much that I could have gotten done during that time that would have made Monday far easier than it is going to be. But, my husband said the choir would be singing this song and it would be different so I went.

As I sat there in the crowd witnessing the growing number of voices joining in together to sing, my tears welling, I realized that there were no barriers. One lone voice singing out goodness was magnetic, and planned or not, others joined in, and like a light filling a dark room, the joy and goodness in their voices permeated hearts (or maybe just mine, but I’d like to think others felt it too). They weren’t echoing each other–Sure, they were singing together, but each voice sang out its own unique tone in its own unique way. There was no hiding in the choral unison because as voices joined in, they could be heard for who and what they were. Yet they all still made music, beautiful music together. There was love. That group of people, knowing them as I do, represented viewpoints and opinions that span the spectrum. They represented varying ages and identities, varying backgrounds and abilities and they stood together in agreement to sing a song about renewal, welcoming, and prayer. It was a visualization of what we need most in this world today, a visualization of what we could be–of what we were, if only for a moment and not just in a church but anywhere, everywhere.

And it was beautiful.

(Day 8, done. I’ve come to spend my days searching for something to write about since I’ve started this challenge instead of just waiting for inspiration to strike. It’s a good process I think but today was a moment in and of itself and begged me to put words to the emotion. Always the best when that happens!)