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Epiphany, Resolutions, and A Sideward Step

Many years ago, I sat down with my calendar almost a week after the new year. A cup of coffee in my hand and a pad of legal-sized paper by my side, I was all set to write down my New Year’s resolutions. Always determined to work on myself, it felt like my best shot for self-reflection in my hurried life to write that list. My kids were back in school and I had a whole two hours after my teaching job with an empty house before the school buses showed up.  The cookies and party mix were out of the cupboards, and the Christmas tree was at the curb, so distractions were minimal. But instead of writing resolutions, I stared out the window at the dreary weather.

January had scared me for years, ever since I endured a serious depression right after the holidays, a heavy cloud that lasted an entire year. I gradually filled my life and my home with children and friends and good work. Not to mention discipline, which is why I was making these resolutions in the first place. Over time, when I had the time, I had done some journaling, but this was a List, not a daily diary entry. These were my important yearly goals, after all.

I sat looking back at the calendar. Next to the date, January 6, was one word: Epiphany. Something shifted. This was different. I LOVED epiphanies, just like any other good English major.  So I picked up the pen, hoping to catch some and write them down. I immediately dropped into a sense I could only call “home.” I took the first full breath in a month. My whole body sighed in layers, like after a good cry, followed by an ineffable sense of peace. Glimpses of possibilities for the next year just sort of occurred to me, so I wrote them down. One after another, ideas popped. A subtle sense of illumination accompanied each pop .

Later I looked up the liturgical holiday. Epiphany. Having been raised in the Southern Baptist church, I had never even HEARD of such a calendar. This was Three Kings Day. The day the sages of the East arrived in the West, following a star. A day for celebration and giving to children in Latino cultures. Never having been a Latina or a Catholic, I immediately felt a kinship through the sheer beauty of this holiday. For me it felt like a coming home, this pause, this sideward step in time. I decided to make it my own little secret. And having decreed this then, it has been so, throughout the following decades, except for one thing.  I kept telling my friends. Many of them adopted the holiday for themselves. One of them led a beautiful day-long workshop on the theme of epiphany. I kept writing about it on this blog. This year I received a text with a photo of a friend’s daughter with a big slice of “Three Kings Cake,” a celebration they shared on Twitter as well. In some ways it feels like a secret society. Just you and me and a few million others.

This year I decided Epiphany is too short, so I’ve decided to extend my personal holiday for a year. Because what it offers me is a Pause button. A Sideward Step into spaciousness, kindness, awareness. A short cut to the simplicity of being.


The Sideward Step
There’s a sideward step
in this decade,
this moment of life.
A letting go of the ways
I’ve learned to walk love
here on this planet.
There’s a choosing of something quieter
than the doings of fear
for future, for world.
Way calmer than this apparent chaos.
It’s a huge place just outside
the old magnetic pull of habit.

In the nanosecond inside a pause
When I remember
I take a micro step
to that parallel place
just on the other side of the dark carnival of
Politics, pop culture, personality.

Each day I celebrate
the epiphany of remembering
To take the slight leap
To land safely inside sanity
I come to the way of this knowing.
Always here. Always has been .   

Solstice Retrospection

“Life itself will be my Art,” I told my friends late one night in the profound philosophical depths of my sophomore year in college . Even as I said it, I felt the truth of it. I was up to the challenge of it. Life would give me my lessons and I would respond artistically. Easy. That was as specific as I got. A pretty vague sense of surrender there, I now see.

In the 50-plus years that have followed, the specifics got real. For the first ten years I thought I would have a charmed (meaning easy) life. Instead of that hopeful and naïve view, my life has been marked by untimely deaths, suicides, drownings, fires and general disappointments. The losses have been far more than I bargained for.

And yet… the blessings of life’s challenges have also rained down. From retrospect there is a sense of the rightness of those things I couldn’t control (like the Universe itself). Always, always I was carried safely to some understanding. But I’ve only known this when I’ve looked into the rearview mirror with an open mind.

I have many artist friends who are hanging retrospectives of their work at this time of life. As I sit in my study and look around and within, my life of art shows itself in a more inner landscape. Solstice brings me that gift every year, on exactly this day. It’s almost my favorite holiday because it’s the day of my own private Ritual of Retrospection. I arise before dawn or sit in the dark following sunset in a warm candle-lit room. All around me are icons that take me to that deep place inside. A painting of Mother and child, crystal waves and labyrinths, sacred hearts, a copper Saraswati, and the divine Sacre Coeur. In the soft golden glow I ask to see the what I haven’t seen before, what I’ve been missing in the rush of the year. I ask forgiveness from my inner critic for my human failings. And then I count on Grace to show me what else I’ve missed: the beauty that I have been in the perfection of all that has passed.

With that soft lens I go back further in my life, reflecting on all of it, the ways I have showed up and haven’t, how I’ve learned to refine the art from my mistakes, and the ways I’ve allowed my light to shine as a result. I see myself as the truly innocent child and when the candle light is just right, I see the perfection of this incredible woven tapestry.

And because my heart is so full of gratitude for all of it, I write you this morning and invite you to do the same for yourself.  During this season may you find time for reflection, to be kind to yourself alone in a room full of soft candle light (bath and bubbles optional). May you meet your kindest self. May you find the art in all of it, all of this thing you call your life.

Walking into the Deep Mystery of Sleep

Sleep has been elusive this past month. First there were the two weeks of jet lag, when I unpacked my bags and waited for all my cells to arrive back home. As I tried to drift off, rich sensory images of the East re-visited me, providing entertainment. But not sleep. I have long had a habit of mining the in-between of re-entry to arrive home with new eyes, to notice what I might have missed before. So my mind has been plenty busy with that a good part of the night.  

This is largely because I immediately realized that my home itself had changed in my absence. The jitteriness all around me was immediately palpable, and this feeling of being on tenterhooks has led up to the election that is taking place as I write. This contagious worry and fear and dread has circulated like an arctic current for the last month, and the hope is that some of it will be alleviated when the polls close tonight.

For me, soothing has come from Medieval mystics, like Julian of Norwich, who famously wrote “all will be well, and all will be well, and all matter of things shall be well.” Except she didn’t write those exact words because she was the first woman to write a book in Middle English. Who knew? What has helped is knowing the world around her was far darker and crazier than ours, and yet her vision was of an unseen future far more hopeful than the plagues and burnings happening all around her.

And then there are visionaries from our time, like Arlie Hochschild, whose interview on On Being has sustained me through this election cycle.

These are the things I remember when I’m writing this, upright in the middle of the day. But the way into sleep is far more mysterious. I wrote this right after my first good night’s sleep, as a way to remember how the back door works. And where the story REALLY begins. It’s a deep story of dreaming, of healing, and of mystery. May you find yours.

 No. Don’t start there. What can dreams tell us anyways?

Some woman. No. Two women following a man climbing a tree.

What? I said: Don’t start there.

Something else beckoned. Some place she could start that was warm.

No. Not warm. Warmer and warmer. Warmest.

Where is that place, a place fit for starting? She wondered aloud this time.

Damn fools in the world, always wanting to get started, she thought, staring up at the faint glow of dark reminders above her head. She had carefully placed them there many years ago as a frazzled young mother, needing a hint, a small spark, some reminder of the dark mysteries just on the other side of the roof.

But now, on her fourth night of lying there flat on her back, she needed not one more freaking reminder of possibilities, mysteries, or anything else. Her brain was already in a lawnmower loop, starting, starting, like someone found the cord to get it going and just kept pulling it again, again, again. What she needed, longed for really, was a way to get herself stopped. To unpull the incessant over-pulled cord of her demanding imagination.

What advice could some dream give me that would resolve this state of affairs? She wondered aloud again. Oops. There she was pulling that same damn cord again.

The cord, the cord, the red cord, tied like a bow, or maybe a fishing hook, dangling just beyond reach. She moved toward it, felt herself sliding down toward the water, shimmying back up, sliding down again.

She let herself drift, and she landed on a raft, a blue, blue raft in a dark grey sea, then holding on to it and bobbing in the warm warm water. The water that held the whale with the warm warm belly, which is where this story really begins.

Shopping for Secrets in Two Worlds

Her oversized suitcase was open: a yawning, yearning invitation. She wanted to fill it with trinkets, with Mardi Gras beads and crow feathers and toys for the children, puzzles and sweets and crayons. They had told her to bring nothing but Tylenol and repellent and filters and probiotics and Pepto-Bismol. All the rest would be hers for a song at the marketplace, they said. 

Why go to a marketplace when all I want is the rarest thing: the silence of no sound, no humming lights, the quiet of my own life? she thought. Why even fill a bag or go to some faraway overpopulated country for that matter? I already know that everything I need is right here. Inside this bubble I call me. In my life as it is. Available.

The silver panel light flickered on at that exact moment. She felt the beckoning of the sleek, square machine, open and ready, offering everything. Her fingers began to itch. All you need to do is cross the room. Tickle the keys. Find the marketplace right here. Easy as that. In no time, new hip packs and bras and wicking socks were on their way. Done.

Four days later, in Kathmandu, the marketplace was all around her, a bazaar as old as a birthing room for a millenia or two, the center of the Tibetan-India trade route. She started out for a walk with friends in Thamel, the old town, with the usual air bubble around her intact. Then two horns converged behind her, having reached a loud agreement that she was wrong, wrong wrong, weaving as she was between rickshaws and motorcycles and people and motorcycles and dogs and motorcycles and broken pavement and motorcycles and still more motorcycles.

Life itself, with all its technicolor terror and magnificence entered her and her private bubble popped. There was nothing to do about it but keep on. Day after day she ventured out into the too-muchness. Her dreams filled up with cacophony and incense and pashmina scarves. She began to long for an escape, and yet still she went forth.

One day she followed the labyrinth of narrow alleyways to the very center and found herself at a bookstore for pilgrims, a site made famous and prosperous by the Hippie Trail of the Sixties. It was deep and tall and stretched back, back , back, filled with esoteric books and tools for the seeker. From what she had heard, it was more humble, more hidden, following the earthquake three years ago. She fumbled around and then requested a title from a small, dark man with wire rim glasses. He nodded, disappeared up, up three flights of stairs. Just when she was about to leave, he returned with a pink paperback. It was a stripped-down version of the beautiful antique illustrated one that she had hoped to find, like the one she had given her own daughter as a teenager. But she had always secretly known that her daughter had never read it, would not. She didn’t find pleasure in long afternoons of reading, preferring to sing and dance instead.

This one was for Preeti, the girl she had come to know only barely, but one whose education she had supported from the other side of the world, one month at a time. She had longed to give her everything. But most of all she dreamed of giving her a way out from the fear and disappointment of her alcoholic stepfather and her sad quiet mother who had escaped with broken teeth and no home or room to claim as her own.

As she paid for the book, The Secret Garden in Nepalthis treasure, she felt right, right right. But when she gave it away she felt even better. A pink, paperback copy of A Secret Garden. Hardly an object to be worshipped and savored, in her country of used book stores and garage sale finds. But Preeti grabbed it, kissed it, refused to offer to loan it to the other children who were already asking. She clung to it in every photo, proudly announcing that it was hers, hers, hers.  

 

Top image by GTMDreams Photos, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license

 

Stitching a Quilt that Holds

My mother has one-and-a-half feet in another world now.  I’m meeting her on the other half-foot, when she’s here, and joining her in the dreaming world when I can. In between times I’m moving through the layers of her life, thing by thing. I see a photo of my grandmother in a familiar dress, holding me as a baby. Did I remember that far back? Just as I’m about to take credit for an astounding memory, I realize I’ve seen it recently. In a quilt made by that very same grandmother in the 1950’s, now residing in my closet awaiting guests.

This is how it’s been. These last few months I’ve traveled sixty years back and forth in random order, time shifting. Time sifting, as I pick up each piece of her past.  And what has emerged is a pattern far more subtle than the one that I’ve been holding together in my mind all these years.

I can practically name the day, or at least the evening in 1970 when the “click” went off in my head and I began to see the oppression behind the traditional role of women. I giggled almost hysterically when I realized I had become a “Women’s Libber,” a somewhat derogatory label assigned to early feminists by the culture at large. Ever since that epiphany, I’ve held a specific belief about women raised in the rural Midwest in the early half of the last century.

I’ve run their stories through my filter about their oppression, including the ways they wasted their time on unappreciated “womanly” domestic arts.  After all, my credentials as a judge of them are impeccable. My mother was the president of FHA, Future Homemakers of America. “All I ever wanted,” she told me many times, “was to be a wife and mother.” For years it has been abundantly clear to me that the size of this role was way too tight, and way too under-appreciated for my own future liberated self.

The proof of her conditioning by the culture early on was all around me as I stood knee-deep in her apartment. Starting with the bib with her detailed embroidery for the birth of her only sibling, a brother. She had been nine years old.  Then an “autograph book” she assembled when she was twelve, filled with other girls’ cards and jingles about getting a husband. Then there are the yearbook and scrapbooks from high school singing the praises of her beauty and kindness (with tips for keeping that man). All of these keepsakes were especially repugnant when I was a young feminist, tainted as they were by male privilege and patriarchy.

After all, everything led to the pinnacle: her carefully planned wedding at 18, and a not-so-planned baby (me) when she wasn’t yet 19.  But I had much more proof of her oppression, based on my life as a little girl and helpmate. There was her ordinary grueling life, in the rural Missouri 1950’s. The life where she raised us and canned tomatoes all day in 120 (F) degree heat. The life where she washed the laundry (on Mondays, as the tea embroidered tea towel said), in a wringer washer and then hung it in the cold attic to dry while three of us under five years old vied for attention.

Then there were her duties as the wife of the school principal, not even 25 years old yet. A few years later, there’s the announcement in the tiny town newspaper about her return to college, with a quick reassurance that she would only be taking classes when her kids were in school. That degree never got finished because making another baby was just too hard to resist. This has always been the punch-line in my story of her demise.

But, as I’ve looked again these past weeks, there’s something else. I see the ways she (and many of the women of her generation) stitched together the social fabric through a myriad of little gifts of time and attention. My mother, and many others before her, planned and pulled off weekly Sunday fried chicken dinners on the farm for a large extended family. This in itself looked easier from a child’s view than it turned out to be in my reality as a young mother, when even a potluck was over my head.

And then there were the less routine but deeply significant duties. She delivered pies and casseroles when tragedy struck, which it did often.

A friend’s son, a teen who fell from the water tower, trying to mark it for the class of ‘54. 

A father who fell from his tractor right in the way of the combine.

A carload of liquored up kids, six dead, from a head-on crash.

My dad, their coach, left to tell the parents.

What may have come from basic social duty transformed her life into something larger. She, and many women like her, held the network of community together as they actively comforted, appreciated, and showed up for all of life, day to day, in big and little ways. They stitched together lives of meaning, piece by piece, like the patchwork quilts they left behind.

Last week I uncovered bundles and bundles of letters she wrote to lifelong friends in longhand, just because. The thoughtful gift, the thank you notes and cards. Many were left behind, written in her shaky hand, still waiting to be sent, as well as boxes (and boxes) that will never see that signature. I couldn’t even give them away to family members because, apparently, sending cards or letters through snail mail is a dying art.

But something of that history remains in my world. Although most of my correspondence is digital, I still keep a ragtag file of cards for such occasions. Sometimes I even write them, stamp them, address them. And I relish each one I receive nowadays, from friends and neighbors, placing it on my altar and lighting a candle to complete the circle.

There is such subtle tenderness and grace in a life of weaving and re-weaving the connections that bind us together. Now, more than ever, in an anxious and uncertain world, I’m embracing this part of my heritage. It supports me in remembering what’s important.

Life. To the fabric we weave from its beginning to its end. To the cards and letters and gifts of ourselves that spread and hold the love. To the holiness of this calling.

The Long View: Give Your Love Away

“In the long view, the best you can do is give your love away.” 
These song lyrics have been echoing in my being ever since last weekend. That’s when my local community celebrated the work of my dear friend, master musician and songwriter Neal Gladstone. There’s not enough space or time to describe his music or his being and its impact on everyone in the vicinity. He’s no longer able to perform because of advancing Parkinson’s, but his work lives on and on in our Ordinary Lives.
His lyrics span a dizzying array of ages, stages, moods, and topics. But in this particular time of life, the long view looms large. As I looked around the bulging auditorium at the audience, I saw people I have known since we were in our late twenties. I see in layers nowadays, remembering each face as it was ten years ago, twenty, thirty, and more. I see our youthful exuberance and our randomly failing bodies. Life has become three-dimensional, or, zooming out, multi-dimensional.
“Meanwhile, the world keeps turning around,” as the lyrics continue. Lately I’ve been experiencing the same multi-layered vision as I’ve supported the recent movements of sanity and kindness. Zoom in: a face, a particular face, one that I have seen before in other rallies and marches through the decades. Savor these close-ups by my good friend David Bayles. Zoom out, and we’ve always done this, always moved together with a sense of unity and gentle strength. From a deep love that says No to destruction in its many forms and Yes to life.
May each of us remember the long view as our paths intersect in the world. As we make the calls, write the letters, argue for sanity (no matter our political alliances), may we not forget our purpose.
Love. Give it all away.

 

Emergency or Emergence-y?

I’ve long been a fan of adrenaline. I’ve thrived on it.  Months and years of my life have been spent in one emergency or another, guaranteeing an adequate flow of juice. I’ve been wondering whether the human animal just needs this shot in the arm to move from complacency to Awakeness and do what needs to be done.

But lately my inbox has been filled with the word “emergency,” and I’m beginning to recognize the signs of overwhelm. I take a random buckshot approach for a while, but the next stage for me is adrenal fatigue. It’s not that I lack commitment to acting on my principles. But I’ve learned a few things, and I’m interested now in a more sustainable, long-range approach.

Last weekend I returned to my Oregon home from my mother’s bedside just in time to take a walk with 100,000 of “my best friends,” as my husband George described them. During the last couple of months there have apparently been “emergency” altercations in Portland, when the police have used the tools of their trade for crowd control. Having just returned, I didn’t know this. What I experienced instead was a sense of Emergence-y.

Throughout the walk, insights kept showing up from my family emergency of the last weeks. My mother had a serious stroke a month ago. The first three weeks of the year we’ve focused on her post-stroke recovery. While I was with her, the focus gradually shifted to her quality of life. When dealing with the primal reality of birth and death, and birth into death, everything has always seemed crucial. Urgent. An emergency.

But this time I waited. And Life always presented the next step. The miracle of ordinary life (and death) just kept flowing. Each action had a simplicity. The faith that accumulated as I turned “my way” over to something greater just kept building. This culminated with the exact right chaplain showing up during my last visit with my mother. The one who hailed from her German/Lutheran childhood home spoke her Lutheran language. He offered the most beautiful prayer for her journey and mine just as I was stretching “my schedule” and heading to the airport. My mother, who has frequently been lost in Stroke-land, emerged enough to nod and say “amen.”

The Women’s March was a lot like that. A step or two. Waiting. A few more steps. As we merged, something was also emerging. All over the world. We don’t know exactly what it is. Many of us (no matter where we fall on the political spectrum) are birthing something. It’s coming. We’re striving to be awake for the death of something that has passed and the birth of whatever is emerging. Both require labor. But without the Emergency state, when we allow things to Emerge, we’re more likely to take just the right and unique action for us, one at a time.

As many of the protest signs said, we’re awake now. Let us stay awake in ordinary life and do the next thing, and the next. The thing that must be done for the new to emerge.  Let us discover whether it’s possible to take action without emergency by making the deepest commitment to attend this Emergence. Day by day.

Kindness. Peace. Love. And committed action on behalf of these principles. This is what is left. I have a renewed trust that this is the Way of things. Steady. Slow. Like water on rock. These are the principles that are Emerging. May we keep drawing, again and again, from that deep well.  And may it sustain us for the times ahead.

The Sweet G-Spot of Gratitude

In the time before Thanksgiving I was drawn to take a deep inner dive into “grateful seeing,” declaring a practice of slowing down for the micro-miracles of daily life. There’s been ample nutrition for the soul in this deepening practice, as I peeked beneath the clichés about gratitude to find my own deeper experience.

Honestly, Universe (or God, or whatever you call it), it’s been really fun. And in my humble opinion I didn’t really need more of a challenge.

However, as it turns out, my opinion about these things seems to be just that. My. Opinion. Reality never fails to show me my real job, whether I approve or not.  Reality brought a stroke to my brother first about six weeks ago and then my mother just before Christmas. All of us (and another brother) have A-Fib, which makes strokes more likely. Since I was scheduled in Texas for proactive surgery for the problem, I was unable to cancel and fly to manage the crisis.

So we all puttered arrhythmically along, in and out of surgeries and hospitals and emergency rooms.  My brother with the recent stroke somehow kept up with my mother’s crisis and his stroke rehab, while I texted and called and did everything I could to not wring my hands into ribbons of worry. The multitude of Care Givers and angels all along the way earned a place in my gratitude pantheon. And yet the reality and the stress of it all has been there all along, lurking in the background. I just returned back to my home for a few days of rest and rebooting before I climb on another plane and head “back East” to my mother’s nursing facility.

So I just today returned to my grateful seeing project for 2017. It’s one thing to make a commitment to living into a “year of gratitude,” imagining quiet moments in nature with birdflight and windsounds. But it’s quite another to welcome all of it, the “full catastrophe,” as Zorba called it, and find the Gratitude Spot somewhere below the apparent disasters.

The small savings account I’ve built up through the practice of micro-moments of gratitude have carried me a long way. But then has come the big challenge of knowing that those you love are struggling without you. That your mother, already confused, has lost her ability to speak. That hospice has been advised.

During the last two months I’ve also been more deeply committed to questioning a myriad of upsetting thoughts and beliefs about everything, including the future of the world. This radical discipline, one that I have been practicing for about ten years, has delivered me again and again to humility and peace. While I’ve learned to question my mind’s assumptions, I’ve also been preparing me to be with my mother, to help make decisions about her future. Without the discipline of pausing and questioning my mind, I’m not much help to anyone.

But with a little pause comes the realization that I really have no idea what will happen next. The relief and acceptance that follows this recognition brings me the deepest acceptance. And from this calm and open mind comes guidance. Again and again. The next thing. For this I am eternally gratefully.

This is the Sweet G-Spot of Gratitude.

Holy Micro-Moments for Sanity

Now that the Thanksgiving leftovers are gone and all the toasts and blessings have been offered, I’m left with a familiar feeling of letdown. Although I savored the time with family and friends, the Holiday of Gratitude doesn’t find much of a footing in my heart, especially during the challenging time of division and fear that has followed the election here in my country.

Regardless of the external circumstances, I’ve never been a big fan of generic gratitude lists. My mind just doesn’t seem to settle on vague concepts. The kindness of people seems way different than the very specific memory of watching a hurried person slow down and hold the door at the gym patiently for someone struggling to get his walker out of the rain.

To save my sanity this month, I launched my own personal Holy Micro-Moments project. I’ve been stalking the little magical details hiding in plain site as I take daily walks or run errands. A certain slant of light, the children at the bus stop, the cashier at the grocery store. Early on it was the mushrooms in a neighbor’s yard.

Mushrooms

What I’ve noticed, without a big investment of time, is that nature seems to conspire to get our attention.  As does human kindness, when we see it, when we let it in.

Even in the midst of all the hubbub in the world right now, holiday or otherwise, there’s that moment of perspective, a deepening of breath.

Join me in exploring the art (and the relief) of finding holy moments in ordinary time.

Take two or three minutes each day to stop, breathe, and savor a moment. If you can, take a photo or jot a few lines in your journal to remind yourself. Share it with the world on Facebook or tuck it away for just you. I’ll do the same.

Gratefully,

Susan Grace

To Life as It Is

To life as it is!  My Danish host offered. As a frequent traveler I had gathered toasts in dozens of languages. But at the moment I clicked goblets around the table this time I was speechless. This was a toast deep and wide enough to say all that couldn’t be said.

Years later one of my best friends drowned and two months later we hosted Thanksgiving dinner for friends and family at our place. These words and a song, “Waters of March,” by Susannah McCorkle, held us all in a time of grief and a hint of hope.

I’ve offered this toast many times since.

This year I keep thinking I’d like to qualify my toast. To life as it is (except for politics). To life as it is (except for my brother’s recent stroke). But I notice even though I have other opinions about what life should do, it doesn’t seem to matter to It. I can honor its ways, even as I do my part to alleviate suffering or change what can be changed. It’s a deal we’ve struck, Life and I.

And so I offer these words to you. May you share them many times as you go into the season of gatherings and celebrations. To Life As It Is.

I bow to that.

“Perhaps”: the Power of the Long View

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.

Fish, Fowl, and this Waiting Time

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.

From the Sweet Spot

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

My Mother, Myself, and the Shoe Worship Lineage

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.