I just spent election week driving across the country, cutting a swath through red states to blue on my way. I was traveling with my daughter, with the plan to celebrate her birthday and the first woman president on the same day, Nov. 9th. You already know how that went. Since that morning I’ve become painfully aware that my living in a blue bubble might have warped my vision a bit. But I spent most of the fall in the Midwest, and I’m just as aware of people there I care about who have their own reasons to be celebrating.
The oddest inner whisper has been haunting me all the way: A simple word, perhaps, repeating in my head like a mantra.
An image of white smoke comes to mind, and a memory: Sitting with my spiritual ama or mother, at a Benedictine monastery where I was studying interfaith spiritual mentoring. Before this I had never paid much attention to popes, having somehow concluded as a child that they were similar to the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. Sister Antoinette was one of the most transparent, illuminated, and open-minded people I‘ve ever met. She was also a “cradle to grave” Democrat, by her own description, and a strong progressive by mine. In her mid-seventies at the time, she glowed with Life. When I was a pre-teen in a Southern Baptist camp, I had been warned of the Catholic plot to take over the world. In the company of Sister Antoinette, I could see how this could happen.
The news was full of updates on the process of selecting a new pope, which included white smoke from a chimney. This was the second day of a process that could last weeks. While I was sitting with Sister Antoinette, the silence was pierced by the chapel bells right outside our window. A phone down the hall rang, and Sister Dorothy, her slightly irreverent friend, tapped on the door.
I knew enough about the candidates to surmise that one of the cardinals, Ratzinger, was strictly literal and a bastion of conservative forces. I had already formed a strong bias against him. I had shortened his name for memory’s sake to “Rat.” I was fairly certain that my friends would have a similar feeling about him being selected Holy Father.
So when Antoinette opened the door to get the news from Dorothy, I watched carefully.
“It’s Ratzinger,” Dorothy said softly.
The Sisters looked into each others’ eyes.
“Perhaps….” They said at the same moment, as each nodded gently.
This moment has stayed embedded in my memory ever since.
They were like visitors from another planet. I saw that their minds were wide open and deeply accepting, at the same time I was pretty sure they wouldn’t change their political activism.
This past week I’ve begun to understand the depth of surrender this takes. My mind and heart haven’t been able to sort through all that is happening. So many parts of the process just haven’t made sense in my world. I’ve been working through my fears and my preconceived opinions about the elected president. At the same time, I’m finding my own way to take effective action to protect people who are bullied or threatened. In the meantime, I’ll practice putting my ultimate trust in the power of the long view.
Cardinal Ratzinger, or Pope Benedict II, was a less than perfect church father who was politely retired for complicated and disturbing choices he had made in his past. The eventual result was the selection of Pope Francis, a much-revered bringer of reform and change. Perhaps it took the house-clearing and honesty that was required to confront priestly child abuse to allow a new leadership to surface. These developments could have never been predicted ten years ago. Who knows how things will continue to evolve? Not me.
It’s now a week after the news, and I’m back home. My mind settles a bit. I make a list of the issues close to my heart and begin to think about how I will support them with action and money. I’m feeling a strongly renewed commitment to stay awake and alert on behalf of justice for my fellow beings and for the earth I love.
And always…I just keep thinking… Perhaps.
I’m not usually a political junkie, but this year seems more like a morality play than an election, and I’ve been hooked, finding my equanimity tossed around by the story line as well as the political implications. It’s a biting-your-nails kind of time for me and for so many others in the world.
Action usually helps, so the first thing I thought to do was to vote. So I did. And mailed it in. It’s something we do here in Oregon without polling sites, voting booths and lines. But I’m still not done with this democratic ritual we call an election. First, there’s more to do. And second, a guilty admission: I’m a little too hooked on the dopamine of the Barnum & Bailey sideshow that has characterized this year’s election.
There’s something familiar here, I think. I’ve always found the stories of ancient and universal human experience helpful in such times as these. So I wasn’t surprised when a couple of words pop through the fog: liminal time. These are the words I’ve often used to describe the state of being neither fish nor fowl, having left the old life behind but not yet having arrived at the new one. In anthropology it describes “a threshold during the middle stage of a ritual when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete.” Neither fish nor fowl.
So I gave my Inner Researcher a job, and she turned up a gem. “Liminal time” is usually characterized by a quality of ambiguity or disorientation. During these times “continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt.” Of course! We’re all in liminal time!
My researcher went on: “There’s a lack of the usual order of life during this in-between time. However, with a more fluid situation, new institutions and customs are able to emerge.”
Now I’m back to a turf I know for real. I’ve seen so many times how important a time of not-knowing seems to be for personal transformation. And so here we are as a culture, not knowing the future for a couple more weeks. Preparing for something new to emerge. I have seen this process again and again. Enough that I trust it completely. Now I know the territory.
When I work with clients, I remind them that this state of waiting can seem excruciatingly long. But again and again my peeps have found that the results are worth the waiting and the not-knowing.
This seems to be always the case. Patience and trust are not necessarily my strongest character traits, but I know I can do this.
We can all do this. Together. Not fish. Not Fowl. But some seaworthy and airborne combination of patience and determination worthy of what is to come.
When I was a preteen, I loved visiting all four of my grandparents the rural town of Sweet Springs, MO. An active farming community, there was room enough to test my wings and my understanding of how a simpler world worked. My favorite place was a teenage hang-out called the Sweet Shop, a genuine fifties-style jitterbug place, still alive in the early sixties. Yesterday I drove through the town, and all the edifices are crumbling around the ghosts of my past, but the memories are still alive. During these “wonder” years I had enough time to create memories and enough brain space to give them permanent residency.
I also celebrated my fiftieth high school reunion last weekend at my real home town of Columbia. A large group of 200 or more showed up. We had a few memories in common, but mostly, we were all the same age, even though a neutral observer who was forced to guess might assume a twenty year range. Words from Ann Patchett’s book Commonwealth cycled through my mind: He was as old as the rest of them, but age arrived at different rates of speed, in different ways.
My friend Vicki shared her Sweet Spot theory, wise and worth sharing here. “There are three basic components of life: time, money, and health. When you’re young, you have lots of time and health but no money. During adulthood, as you create your life, there’s money (assuming you find a good job/career) and you’re healthy, but you have no time. Then, if you’ve planned ahead and have good fortune, there are some years where you have time, money and health. This is the sweet spot. (These are the years of early “retirement.”)
I’m fortunate enough to be able to see the truth in her words. And I want to be aware enough to remember the elusive sweetness of this moment in time, in my life. Most of my disturbing thoughts and memories have been put to rest. I’ve discovered, as Patchett says, “There’s a pleasure in a long life, the way some things work themselves out.”
And what is left can only be described as sweet.
Image by Chinese World Hotel, Beijing, used under CC-BY-SA-3.0
Today I’m packing for a pilgrimage back to the Midwest. First, I’ll be connecting with lifelong friends at a big number high school reunion. There’s always news at these events, but mostly it’s a simple celebration that we’ve made it through life’s obstacle fields and we’re still here.
As I put my turquoise shoes into the suitcase, my 87-year-old mother is already with me. She’s the biggest reason for the trip. Living far away from her as her memory fades, I’m reminded of a line of a poem by Lyn Lifshin: She was like a kite whose string I’d lost hold of, getting smaller and smaller.
I’ve been feeling a bit untethered myself lately, living halfway across the country from her. So this trip I want to remember every minute the gift it is to spend any time together. We have so few opportunities left. This brings me to the subject of shoes. They’re the one thing that’s guaranteed to tether us to the present moment, to strengthen that string. Last spring, my mother fell in love with the very shoes I just packed. I mean serious love. These love affairs run deep in our blood, a part of our ancestral lineage.
Or it could be that it’s a little vein of rebellion within our sturdy German peasant ancestry. My German-speaking great grandmother wore black lace-up oxford heels, a style that looks far more chic on models in magazines now than they did worn with her cotton stockings. Her mother was “Grossie” and as a child I thought this was a mean comment about how she looked in the photos, in dowdy flower prints and crocheted collars and lace-up boots. I later found out the name was commonly used in the German farming community as a form of respect.
My grandmother, her daughter, bought shoes of every color and style to show off her slender legs and ankles. We all called her Imelda, especially when we were packing up her pumps and heels in every style and color. Vanity was something she never surrendered during her ninety-plus years.
My mother should wear Mary Janes or tennis shoes that she can count on as she pushes her walker. But she’s not satisfied with these when I visit. Lately she’s insisted on getting exact copies, in style and color, of whatever shoe I’m wearing. Tan sandals with ankle straps, red slip-on wedges. Without the support at her arches, they fall…or she does, which might mean the dreaded breaking of a hip and all that entails at her stage of the game.
I’m torn between practicality and pampering as I think of savoring the time we have together. So maybe during this visit I’ll wear straps and laces, red, purple, or pale, pale yellow. And maybe we’ll take a long, slow jaunt to her favorite shoe store and look for some turquoise.