Presence

I’m currently seated alone on a bench in the middle of the Central Garden at the Getty Center–a bit of calm in the midst of the whirlwind that is chaperoning a class trip to Los Angeles. It’s a pretty slow afternoon here so rather than being surrounded by troops of school children and scads of tourists, I’m instead engulfed by tender tweeting of the birds, water dancing lightly over boulders and idle chatter of intermittent museum guests walking the path beside me. The sun is beaming down from a cloudless sky accompanied by a light breeze tempering the heat…a perfect afternoon.

And for the first time in months, I am truly still…momentarily at peace…existing simply in awestruck wonder of the beauty that surrounds me. Beauty, when we stop to examine it and appreciate it, had this effect…drawing us in, holding us nearer to its perfection and then sending us away again changes. Here, in this moment, I am not needed or in need. There is nothing else I should be doing or would rather be doing. The magic of this garden and its serenity has dissolved the rest of the happenings of this day and I exist solely in this place, in this moment. My heart rate has slowed and my eyes feel opened to a world beyond the immediate moment.

The immediate moment, replete with daily stressors of work and home and kids and bills and health and airplanes I’m not so excited about boarding in the current situation, began to dissolve the moment I sat down and inhaled for the exhalation that followed let it all go—blown towards the mountains in the distance already encased in fog (seems like they could handle a little more).

This larger moment contains being amid the gift of creation that surrounds us and truly seeing it, hearing it, and then pausing to really be here and not everywhere else.

Presence. How often are we this present in our lives? How often do we dismiss preoccupation to live into the moments we are blessed with? I know my struggles with this reflect a life that is too busy, a mind too cluttered. But I also can’t always see my way through the fog of it all of the time. And let’s face it, I’m not in the Central Garden of the Getty everyday…

And so, presence becomes a Lenten promise of sorts. A renewed dedication to being present for my kids, for my husband, for myself, for my life. There is no expedient means of repair for the till modern life has taken on my ability to live free from the weight of the rest. Restoration will require mindfulness and effort–as all important endeavors do–but the quality of life that will resound as a result…transformative.

“I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud” by William Wordsworth never felt more appropriate:)

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.

becoming

I was speaking with a student the other day about how when we aren’t paying attention, things in our lives (both insignificant and critical) change. Sometimes that change brings positivity and goodness and sometimes that change surreptitiously steals something irreplaceable. We also talked about how it can be hard to look back on that easier time, that time before. Pervasive jealousy can eat away at you in those moments if you aren’t careful. Jealousy for moments when you felt more yourself, more able, less confined, less troubled. I should know. I look back on the pre-inner ear days with great longing. In pictures from before this disorder began, I immediately recognize an ease to my smile that indicates I hadn’t yet suffered the weight of what was to come. I wonder who that girl could have become…what her life might have looked like…what she could have accomplished.

But, I had a student in a bit of a crisis with me, so I couldn’t stop there or even really linger. I had to bring a more important insight to her. And that was simply this: Don’t focus too much on who you feel like you were before this “thing” interrupted your journey, retrain your gaze on who you will become as a result…give that girl some grace and begin to wrap her in love and acceptance.

For my own purposes, it doesn’t matter who that smiling carefree girl in my pictures could have become without the illness; the fact of the matter is that the strength and determination I possess today was instilled because I walked through that fire…because it melted and reshaped me and I am stronger as a result. Is my life what I thought it would be? Nope. But that isn’t a terrible thing. Sure it would be nice to float through a simpler existence on this earth…to move through my days with nothing more than average human dilemmas. That is not the lot I drew and pouting about it only denies the beauty that my life still has to offer.

Of course I can say this because I’m currently on the other side of that fire and it is easier to see the truth because of that. But this student needed to know that she wasn’t alone. That she will reach the other side of her fire as well. She needed to know that it is okay to grow and to change in response to this life and it is also okay to feel frustrated and hurt that this change had to occur…but that giving up is not a worthwhile indulgence. She needed to know that she could still tackle amazing feats. She needed to know she’s not done yet just because it’s hard right now. And she needed to talk and to be heard. So I listened…for a while..before sharing anything with her. Because sometimes you need to empty the tank before you can be filled up again.

(For some reason, as I wrote this, Joy Harjo’s “Once the World was Perfect” came to mind. I think it was the beginning of the poem that resurfaced first–

“Once the world was perfect, and we were happy in that world.
Then we took it for granted.
Discontent began a small rumble in the earthly mind.
Then Doubt pushed through with its spiked head.
And once Doubt ruptured the web,
All manner of demon thoughts
Jumped through—”)
(And I also thought of this–“Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes)
(Day 49–7 weeks of daily blogging–and good thing I’m almost done. Parades have begun in full force and king cake is getting harder to resist!)

wisdom of yesterday

So, should you ever decide to venture into the realm of setting goals that can only be achieved through discipline (and I would say that is most goals), I strongly recommend prioritizing them and working toward them one at a time. Okay, so maybe this isn’t true in all cases. Maybe I’m just speaking about the predicament I have created for myself in both dedicating myself to a blog a day and to a healthier lifestyle. Those two objectives really should not complicate each other…except they do. Here’s why: In order to live this healthier lifestyle, exercising on a nearly daily basis is required. My work/family schedule mandates that take place in the darkness of early morning (before I work an often 12 hour school day). Conversely, in order to write daily, I have to wait until the day is essentially done…dinner has been cooked and the kids are in bed. This schedule means that I wake up at 4:30am and don’t get to write until somewhere around 9pm…when I am thoroughly exhausted and ready to just fall asleep on my couch while pretending to watch television!

The only thing making success possible isn’t the king cake prize at the end (shocking, I know). Rather, it is merely the determination to succeed. This is something I couldn’t have mustered even in small form last year at this time. I was so sick and spinning nearly everyday and was too weak to foster any sort of regular discipline. Writing was misery in those days because nothing stood still and because my brain was so focused on seeing straight that words were not so easy to recall and certainly didn’t flow into orderly sentences crafted with style and voice…so instead of persevering, I avoided. It seemed easier that way. To make all of this even worse, I also made a pretty conscious decision that since my body was being so antithetical, I would be disagreeable right back and proceeded to eat anything and everything that I wanted. I ate all the gluten, consumed all the sugar, sipped all the carbonated beverages. Did any of this make me feel better? Probably only in the moment where I fibbed myself into believing that I deserved the deceptively delicious nutritionally void delicacy. Beyond that, sugar and gluten simply are not my friends, but after learning to abide by the discomfort my inner ear brought, this food induced malaise paled.

This indulgence into the world of avoidance and emotional eating not only destroyed my once healthy habits, but also built new terrible ones. Which is partly why this challenge has been so important and partly why I’ve maintained it even when it would be so much more comfortable to quit and to attain a reasonable amount of sleep. Knowledge of what I was incapable of last year at this time…knowledge of how far I still had to go…knowledge that it could all come back in any given moment…brings a gratitude that drives me forward. I maintain my discipline because I can…because it is a gift…because no day should be taken for granted and what I actually deserve is to honor the parts of myself that need exercise–both my brain and my body. It would be selfish to do anything else and foolish to waste what I can do today.

Yesterday brings a clarity worth honoring.

(A poetic gift in honor of hard work… “To Be of Use” by Marge Piercy Here she writes these lines and more…

“The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.” )

 

(Day 48! Written after family movie night and still relatively coherent…writing everyday has made that possible…the discipline is worth the discomfort)

forgiveness

For all of my optimism and fancy “love your neighbor” speak, I am remarkably good at harboring a good old-fashioned grudge. Ironically, I pride myself on being a skilled practitioner of rationalizing the behaviors of the people in my life, recognizing that there is always more to a person’s words and actions than I am granted witness to. But every now and then, someone does or says some hurtful thing, shows little or no contrition (this is what really gets me), and the barb sticks a little deeper and the sting lingers (for far too long).

And maybe “grudge” is the wrong word? Because I typically extend grace in spite of it all so that I can proceed without the daily reminder of the hurt. I acknowledge that carrying all of that around really only injures me, mars my quality of life. Except, as is often true, this particular process isn’t so neat and tidy. Something within me can’t (won’t) forget that the words were said or the actions taken. There is no resulting legitimate intrusion into my everyday life; in fact, I feel pretty at peace most of the time. But when triggered, the emotion and hurt flood fast, forcing the barb to drive a little deeper…reopening the wound…growing the scar.

I know this is all within my control. That if I took the time and the effort to remove the barb completely at the start and to truly forgive, I would eliminate the possibility of  heartache set on loop. But that’s the hard work of being human, isn’t it? To figure out how to be less human and closer to the divine, because it is absolutely a divine gift to possess the ability to obliterate that kind of damage and to move forward freed from its weight and potential for reincarnation.

Yet, far worse than nurturing wounds inflicted by another is the inability to forgive ourselves (myself in this case). I wield compassion willingly toward others, yet too often withhold it from myself. I recognize that I am human and that humans are imperfect and as such will make mistakes, fall into error…all the things. But that doesn’t alter the standard I have set for myself and the guilt that persists in spite of it all. I would like to say that I am tougher than I am. That when I mess it up, my response is “well, that’s just me and people will just have to be okay with that or that’s their issue.” But I’m never going to be that person. And that’s not to say that I over-worry about what others think of me. Far from it. I simply want people to know the truth of me and when I falter from my center, my core, then I’m more hidden than revealed.

So, this is the work. Learning to forgive myself, working harder to truly forgive others. Freeing myself from the weight that accompanies and amasses with lingering negativity. Releasing myself to enjoy life because mistakes will always be made but I don’t have to focus my attention there alone. There is goodness enough in the world that is far worthier of that kind of dedication. And that is where I will work to turn my gaze.

reminiscent

A couple of years ago, I attended the Heinemann literacy retreat in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. We spent mornings in this idyllic environment filling pages of writers notebooks while working with Linda Rief. Really, those mornings earned and own space as beloved moments of time–moments that could never endure a precise recreation, for I will never be exactly as I was then. Yet, they live on inside of me nonetheless.

On one of those brilliant Maine mornings, I wrote the following piece. I’m not sure what made me think of it today, but suddenly I found myself possessed with the desire to seek out my notebook from that week and find this particular piece…and maybe nudge it and rework it a bit. A response to Katrina and the loss my family suffered in her fury, this piece testifies, I think, that even though lives move on and we find healing, solace, old wounds still open up every now and again, proving painful with their sting.

My mom and dad and sister and brother will probably read this piece and I worry that it will be too much (so maybe, stop reading here you guys…or if you continue, don’t say I didn’t warn you!). But I also don’t want to leave these thoughts out of the record of my heart, my life.

~~~~~~~~~

The table that got carried away by the flood knew stories, so it knew lives. Knew my childhood. My family–all of them: those that came before me, those that sat around it with me, whether for many years or for fewer than felt fair. It knew projects and homework and it knew me–the tiniest in the house charged with dusting its belly and legs—a job to keep little hands occupied and little me out of the way (that is until I deserted its secret dusty crevices in exchange for the tedium of picking parsley leaves in the kitchen).

It knew warmth. The center of our gathered hearts as we shared a meal, exchanged communion in conversation, offered up wishes of Thanksgiving or Merry Christmas or Happy Birthday or Congratulations–our most precious occasions. And it celebrated with us. Holding up our joy, taking in our laughter (or our tears), relishing it all. A bounty of food could only further adorn its beauty, a bounty of love surrounding it, effervescent. It became a touchstone, a symbol for family, for togetherness.

The table that got carried away by the flood also knew discord (all families really do). It stood strong in the midst of disagreements, teenage angst, parental concern…endured the occasion frustrated fist hammering down in order to punctuate a point…and it reverberated the echo as if in agreement. It knew grief too and absorbed the weight of loss as we attempted to endure and learn to live again.

But the saltwater of those tears could not prepare it for the deluge to come, for the sacrificial offering it would become. The table had withstood floodwaters before (though they merely tickled its toes), so it had remained confidently behind…on guard so to speak for all the life that house contained even with its people huddled together in some other house, in some other city just distant enough to escape danger (they were some of the lucky ones; they had a place to go). Yet, the enormous rush of water didn’t baptize to bring forth new life. No, these waters came in a hurry and took up residence only to depart weeks later leaving mold, stench and destruction in their wake.

Today, there are grandkids who sit around a different table (one with far less history) beside their parents, grandparents, cousins. Today, new conversations scintillate the air around a new table in a new-old house. Today, there are celebrations and arguments and joy and there is family and that abundance overwhelms, but the missing remain present as no one expected the lingering litany of loss.

The table that got carried away by the flood could not be replaced, though a stand in fills its vacancy. Memories only surface intermittently these days causing ephemeral tinges of longing for another chance to grace its antique sturdiness. These moment usher in longing and then gratitude, for life, health, the past, and the people that brought that table to life.

(Day 33–this one was a joy to write, though I don’t love the ending…it is a bit rushed, but so am I. I can return another day.)