Thursday, March 18, 2010

Facing Death

Have you ever been in a situation that you TRULY believed that there was a good chance that you were going to die? An accident or a diagnosis that caused you to really have to consider the fact that you might not only die, but die soon. I recently had such an experience and I have been paying attention to the what it has left in my mind, body and spirit.

We were on a trip over spring break and were flying into the bad storms that they were having on the east coast to land at the airport in Newark. The flight crew had warned us far in advance about the situation and told us to expect some turbulence. The flight was bumpy for much of the flight, but as we as we neared Newark it got really BAD. Someone came on the PA and told us that it was going to be a pretty rough ride but that they would have us on the ground soon. Then there was complete silence from the cockpit for the next 45 MINUTES (not SOON in my book) while the plane creaked and groaned and bucked and swayed. I REALLY thought that there was a possibility that I was going to die.

I’m going to say this again, I REALLY thought that I was staring death in the face. I know I’m being repetitive, but that part is very important, because I want to share my reaction to that thought and especially how I prayed during that time, or probably more accurately how I didn’t pray. Because, it helped me to become aware of something that I hadn’t realized before and it surprised me.

I never once prayed that I wouldn’t die or that we wouldn’t crash. Not once. And my kids were on the plane. You would think that I would have at least prayed that my kids wouldn’t die. The closest that I came was to say, “God, I really don’t want my kids to die.” Actually, the only way that I prayed was just to keep my heart open to whatever would be. To accept my death if it was to come. To accept the death of my husband and my kids if that was to come as well and to not give in to fear.

I did not get on that plane with some idea about how I would pray or react if I was faced with death. We all will always wonder how we will behave when that moment actually comes. I don’t possess some theology or dogma about not praying for my own safety. I know that some people don’t believe in asking for anything for themselves. That’s not me. I want and NEED God’s help and ask for whatever God is willing to give me.

Here’s what I now understand about why I didn’t pray to be saved. Because it would have been asking for myself to be excused from all of the suffering in the world. It would have been saying that it’s alright for God to let someone else die in a plane crash, die in an avalanche, have their whole family killed in an earthquake in Haiti, be kicked out on the street with no where to live, or live in constant fear of war, famine or starvation with no real way to protect your children, but I should be spared for some reason. In that moment, I was standing in solidarity with the people all over the world who were deeply suffering and who wouldn’t be spared.

While I didn’t feel that I should pray to be spared my own suffering, I do pray for all of those who suffer in the world and that God will use me as an instrument to help relieve their suffering. Not avoiding my own pain and fear is one of the ways that I pray.

When we have wept many tears and they flow like rivers
from our sad eyes
only then
does the deep hidden sigh of
our neighbor
become our own.
Julia Esquivel

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Sacred Art

While chatting with a friend recently the topic of having too many books to read and to choose from came up, a subject that is something that I have given a lot of thought to recently. I told her that I had blogged about it and could send her the link so that she could read some of my thoughts.

“Oh, blogs.” She said the word as if something nasty was stuck to her tongue, her body slumped forward with weariness and the corners of her mouth turned down. “I hate blogs. They are just one more thing to read.”

I, of course, understand that the amount of reading material that we have at our disposal is overwhelming and so understood her sentiment. However, my desire was to share something about what I was processing in my own life. And so I said, “Well, sometimes they are a good way to let people in your life know what you are processing on a deeper level. The kind of thing that you can’t or don’t necessarily share in regular conversation.”

“Well, if someone really wants to share something in their life why can’t they just call me or email me?” , she asked. I tried to explain again that I wasn’t necessarily suggesting that she needed to follow my blog, I just thought that she might be interested in this particular subject and I would email her that particular blog.

“Oh, no. I don’t even want to think about it. The whole blog thing is just so burdensome. It wearies me.”

To which I responded with a guilty little giggle, “I have a blog about that, too.”

I realized that I was feeling defensive and a little hurt, so I shut up. But, I have continued to ponder this interaction and to question why it felt hurtful to me. I can completely understand how emails, blogs, and Facebook, can be a complete time and energy drain. I absolutely support her choice. I more than support it. I encourage her not to read blogs, including my own, if it would burden her life.

I think that I am hurt because of the seeming lack of interest in how I view what I do here at my blog. This is one of my expressions in the world, my creativity, my art. How I offer a deeper piece of myself. And in my opinion, it’s not fluff and I don’t put something down here just for the sake of filling up a page or to entertain.

The blogs that I follow are full of beauty, grace and truth. Really. And if it feels otherwise, well, I stop following them.

I have to wonder if it would be different if I had said that I had a painting that I wanted her to look at or a piece of music that I wanted her to hear. We look at writing as if it is something that anyone can do. Most people do it in some form every single day and therefore we stop thinking about how writing is so full of imagination and creativity. We don’t think of it as art. And certainly a blog, which sounds almost exactly like the word blah couldn’t possibly be an artistic outlet. But, for me, everything that is a vehicle for beauty, grace and truth is art.

So, I want all of you to know that today, I am celebrating you as the fabulous sacred artists of life that you are.

What are the ways that you are a vehicle for beauty, grace and truth in the world? What is your means of creativity and expression that may be overlooked or not considered art? I would love to hear.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

What do you see?

When I was 10 years old, I was sitting beside an elderly friend of the family in a country church service. She looked toward the front of the church where a wooden sign displayed information about the morning’s attendance and offering amounts and then commented on what she saw there. I remember turning to her in amazement. “You can read that from here?”, I asked. She looked at me with concern. “ You mean you can’t?” “I can’t even tell there are numbers on that board”, I answered. Needless to say, I was in the optometrists chair within the next few days where it was found that my eye sight was very bad indeed. I marveled then and alsotoday about the fact that I had no idea that my vision was decreasing AND that every day I was seeing the world totally differently from all of the people around me. I assumed that everyone else saw exactly like me.

A few days ago I was listening to a political commentator speak about the huge importance of empathy and how it was invaluable for individuals, corporations and governments. She was proposing that our lack of empathy was so problematic that we needed to teach it in our schools. My jaw dropped, I hit the “pause” button on the Ipod and turned to my husband and kids who were riding in the car with me. “What!? Why in the world would we have to teach this in school? Don’t we all already know how to feel empathy? Isn’t it part of what it means to be human? Isn’t it hardwired into our make up?” Empathy has always been something that just moves inside of me and so I just thought that it came equally naturally to everyone else.

For me empathy means the ability to imagine the feelings and experiences of another. (And when I use the term imagine here I am referring to an emotional imagination, not just a vision in my head.) The dictionary on my computer actually says the ability to share or understand, but in my experience unless I have actually experienced the same situation, I can’t really share or understand their feelings. (Perhaps it’s just semantics.) Empathy means that I can look at a person or situation that is different socially, culturally, religiously, etc. etc. and still say, “Here is a person that is in some fundamental way very much like me. We are not so different.” I am identifying with their humanity.

So, help me see with different eyes. I know what I hope to be true and what I want to believe, but I would like to hear about what you all think the reality is of our relationship to empathy.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Pausing for Pain

Recently, I helped facilitate a women’s retreat based on Macrina Wierderkehr’s book, Seven Sacred Pauses. Since then, the women who attended have been keeping in touch to encourage each other to find ways to gift ourselves with pauses in our busy lives. Even just reminding ourselves to breathe.

Having practiced yoga and meditation over the last few years, my breath and I have become pretty good friends My breath has become a faithful companion that often draws me into awareness of my body and parts of it which are tight, carrying tension, out of alignment, or in pain. I will recognize my stress, fears or anxiety if I follow my breath into my body. My breath also leads me back to my heart and my spirit where that simple inhale and exhale become a prayer of presence.

A few mornings ago, I had just finished my yoga routine. There was nothing unusual about it, same thing that I do every day. But then, as I was rolling up my yoga mat, my back and chest were suddenly seized up by an incredible spasm of pain. It felt as though it was effecting every muscle and bone in my thorax and the pain was so severe that I felt as though I could not take a breath in. Even the slightest movement was agony. I rolled onto my side and lay there as still as possible, taking only the shallowest of breaths. Boy, was I ever AWARE of my breath. Watching it in minute detail. Where it began and where it ended. Each one punctuated with pain. Still, my mind raced with questions about what I was going to do. I didn’t know how long it would go on. Should I call my husband in the other room and tell him that I couldn’t get up. (It was reminding me of a senior citizen commercial. Something about “help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up”. I did not want to do that.)

I thought about the fact that I was supposed to be doing my meditation, not rolling around on the floor in pain. Then I realized, the pain was my meditation. It was what I was going to get to pay attention to that day. And so I just tried to stay as present as I possibly could to the pain. I didn’t try to distract myself from it or try to relieve myself of it. I didn’t struggle against it. I tried to relax myself as much as possible and kept breathing.

Eventually, the extreme pain relented and I was able to take more regular breaths and then push myself up to sitting and then standing. Everything was painful that morning and most of the day, but in the midst of it I felt grateful. I was pretty sure that whatever it was wasn’t going to be permanent, and that my body was trying to right and heal itself. I know that there are millions and millions of people who live with pain every day. Physical pain, emotional and spiritual pain. I was being asked to pray with them through the pain in my own body.

I truly believe that if I had tried to ignore the pain or braced myself against it to keep it from happening, my body would have had a harder time finding its way back to its proper balance.

Is there any pain in your body today? In your mind or spirit? How might you be called to pause with your pain

Saturday, February 20, 2010

She lives her life both wide and deep....

I received a sweet email today from Sunrise Sister commenting on my blogging absence and sending wishes that all is well in my world. I am not yet sure about proper blogging etiquette. I did not purposely decide to stop blogging altogether and yet day after day passed and then several weeks in which there has been complete silence at my blog. Should I have said, “I’m a little busy right now and you won’t be seeing or hearing much from me here”? Should I have said, “I’m taking a blogger break”? I don’t know why it should surprise me that people notice when I am gone, I certainly notice when many of you haven’t posted in a while.

As much as I love blogging and taking part in the blogging community, I have found myself to be scattered in both mind and spirit, pulled in many different directions. The way that I have interacted in the blogging world was contributing to that. I have been on a spiritual journey long enough to know that life is constantly changing both inwardly and outwardly and in order to care most lovingly for myself and those that I am committed to, I must pay attention to what is needed at any given juncture and shift appropriately. At one point in my life I may have multiple different projects and interests going on all at once and my spirit thrives on it. At another point, I may be asked to give all of my focus to only one thing. Maybe two.

I am currently in a place where I am being asked to simplify on all levels. Fewer books, activities, and interactions. Fewer words. I need inner spaciousness. I am being drawn to this simplicity in the midst of a family who is busy with many activities, each of us going in many different directions. Almost all of it is wonderful, enriching, enlivening and exciting. But that wonderful life creates limited opportunities for outward spaciousness, which for me means empty places on my calendar.

There is a line from a song that I can no longer recall the title of that says, “She lives her life both wide and deep.” I want to live a life of balance between wide and deep. But right now, the scales are tipping toward depth. I feel sure that a time focused on depth will enable me to move back into the wide, wide world.

I hope to be seeing you all soon.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

To No Longer Feel the Solid Ground

The Swan

This laboring through what is still undone,

As though, legs bound, we hobbled along the way,

Is like the awkward walking of the swan.

And dying—to let go, no longer feel

The solid ground we stand on every day—

Is like his anxious letting himself fall

Into the water, which receives him gently

And which, as though with reverence and joy,

Drawback past him in streams of either side;

While, infinitely silent and aware,

In his full majesty and ever more

Indifferent, he condescends to glide.

Ranier Maria Rilke

Immediately after posting my blog on Monday, this beautiful poem from Rilke found me again. I am so grateful that there are people in the world who can express so exquisitely an experience that we all recognize on some level. It is what I wish for on the ski slopes, in my relationships, and in my deepest self. And it is happening. As we all learn to let go of fear, let go of control, we will also learn to glide. Effortlessly. Beautifully.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Slippery Slopes

A few years ago, our family went together with good friends to purchase a cabin in the little ski resort town just south of Anchorage. At that point, I didn’t know how to ski at all. I grew up in Kansas where people don’t go around slapping blades or boards to their feet and then locating treacherous surfaces to move about on or launch yourself off of. I envisioned long snowy days in the cabin alone, curled up in front of the fire with a book and a cup of cocoa while everyone else braved the slopes and the elements. It sounded like heaven!

But, our first season in the cabin, Mark presented me with a request. He hoped that skiing could be an outdoor activity that we could do as a family.

He wanted me to learn to ski. And he had already scoped out a program, Women’s Midweek Clinic. He was asking me to take Wednesdays off, drive to Girdwood, ski with an instructor and a group of women at my ski level (beginner) for 2 ½ hours and then partake in a lavish luncheon at the resort hotel. Very posh.

I didn’t want to do it. Several years before, I had let Mark convince me to get off the green runs (there’s essentially only two of them) and go up the mountain to try blue or intermediate runs. (There’s no other way down except “blues”.) I cannot tell you how terrified I was up there. I was convinced that I was going to die. Really. Highly unpleasant. When I got down, I hung up my skis (well, I turned in my rentals) and that was that.

But now, Mark said, “I am asking you to try this. It’s just four weeks. And if you hate it, I will never bring it up again.” Hmmm…sounded fair enough. I was back to imagining the fire and the book when the lessons didn’t work out.

Our instructor was a 23 year old guy who had been skiing since he was three. Skiing was as natural to him as walking. He was a good enough teacher but he just couldn’t quite understand our fear. We did our few runs down the easy green trail and then he was ready to get us on the blues. (Because really, if you can’t ski blues at Mt. Alyeska, there’s almost nothing else to do.) He was attempting to teach and coax seven or eight trembling women down a short (and icy!) intermediate run.

He said, “Just do this.” He lifted his arms parallel to the ground, his poles dangling from his arms, pointed his skis down that slope , and let go. His skis carried him down ten or fifteen feet at which point he made the tiniest little adjustment to the angle of his body allowing his skis to turn and carry him across the mountain in an arc as graceful as any ballet dancer. Effortless. Beautiful.

Something inside me shifted, ached, broke open. I longed for that ease, that grace and that fearlessness. I am sure you see the spiritual corollary here and my heart felt it immediately.

I would love to end this part of my story by telling you that I lifted my arms and glided down that slope as beautifully as he did. Nope. No way. I inched down, forcing my skis into a wedge, sliding down the icy incline, falling a couple of times and near tears. But then, I got back on the lift and tried again. And kept trying again.

By the end of my four weeks, I had been down many blue runs, mostly terrified and sometimes still near tears, but also in equal measure, exhilarated. It wasn’t quite “fun” yet and it was still a constant challenge for me, but I was in. I was a skier. A very bad skier, true, but getting down the mountain none the less.

Sometimes I still feel like a very bad pilgrim on the spiritual journey. I feel like I should be further down the road or have more figured out. But, I’m in. I am a pilgrim and I will be until the day that I die. There’s no turning back. I can’t help but respond to the constant drawing of the loving spirit of God, calling me to the next possibility or the next slippery slope. Sometimes it’s terrifying, sometimes it’s effortless. There are still some tears. But, oh, what an awesome ride it’s been and will be.

**I probably don't have to tell you, but, that's not me in the picture.