Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Little More Light

At my church last night we celebrated a service of the Longest Night, held every year on the winter solstice. The Solstice's are important times for us here in the far north. It matters greatly to us that there will be more light today (11 seconds more!) than there was yesterday and that we are headed out toward the light. We will need this hope and awareness for January tends to be a long, dark and cold month. People who can, fly away to warmer climes. Some of us, strange as it may seem, actually seem to thrive in the dark. I have found a few kindred souls who love the darkness of winter, but I'm pretty sure that I am in the minority.

The purpose of the service that we hold each December 21 is to create a space around the Holidays in which we acknowledge that in the midst of holiday activities, people are hurting. In fact, almost all of us are hurting in some way. Some have acute grief or chronic pain or deadening depression. Some are struggling with the same old dysfunctional relationships, addictions, and heartaches. Some of us simply feel restless, dissatisfied and confused. I, personally, have been having a hard time maintaining hope in the face of so much bad news in our country and around the planet. And so this service creates a container in which we can share our aches, acknowledge that there is joy in this season but there is also deep sorrow. Our service provides a safe place in which to feel that sorrow.

One of the beautiful souls of our congregation told us her story. When her boys were 4 and 1, she found out that both of them had Muscular Dystrophy. Both of them. A fatal disease. No cure. She was pregnant with her 3rd child, also a boy. He did not carry the gene for the disease and so he is still alive today, but she lost the other two, both at the age of 17. Through her tears she told us of the pain and the grief, but the word that she used much more often was joy. How much joy she had in her life and also how sure she was that God loved her. I am in awe of this soul and grateful for her presence here with us.

It was a very beautiful service and also quite sad. Many tears were shed. But it also contained great hope. Hope in ourselves, in our courage and our strength. Hope in our community as we stand beside each other in our darkest nights admitting that we don't have the answers. And ultimately the Hope that we have in God.

As I looked around me last night, as I live my life with a faith community, as I read many of your blogs and watch your struggles and rejoice at your insights and creativity, I realize that many of us are living as though we really truly believe that there is a force in this universe that truly loves us, that empowers us to keep getting up, dusting ourselves off and trying again to bring a little more love into this world.

You know, to keep trying and to keep believing in the face of the great darkness that we sometimes face is no small thing. It is nothing short of a miracle.

We end our service every year with the song Here Comes the Sun by the Beatles. I can't tell you how it lifts the darkness and brings back our hope.

Here comes the sun,
here comes the sun,
and I say it's all right

Little darling, it's been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun,
here comes the sun
and I say it's all right

Little darling,
the smiles returning to the faces
Little darling,
it seems like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun,
here comes the sun
and I say it's all right

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes...
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes...
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes...
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes...
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes...

Little darling, I feel that ice is slowly melting
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been clear
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun,
and I say it's all right
It's all right
The Beatles

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

White and Wild

In the Midst of Falling Snow......Image by Harpersbizarre via Flickr

I hope that you aren't tired of hearing about the weather in Alaska. Our clouds have lifted to a slightly higher elevation and have begun releasing gently falling snow flakes, not the great big furious ones, but small and slightly timid ones. It put me in mind of one of Mary Oliver's poems that is one of my favorite winter poems because she so accurately evokes the feelings that I experience here and also because the deep wisdom of this poem doesn't need to have anything at all to do with snow.

Walking Home from Oak-Head

There is something
about the snow-laden sky
in winter
in the late afternoon.

that brings to the heart elation
and the lovely meaninglessness
of time.
Whenever I get home--whenever--

somebody loves me there.
I stand in the same dark peace
as any pine tree,

or wander on slowly
like the still unhurried wind,
as for a gift,

for the snow to begin
which it does
at first casually,
then irrepressibly.

Wherever else I live--
in music, in words,
in the fires of the heart,
I abide just as deeply

in this nameless, indivisible place,
this world,
which is falling apart now,
which is white and wild,

which is faithful beyond all our expressions of faith,
our deepest prayers.
Don't worry, sooner or later I'll be home.
Red-cheeked from the roused wind,

I'll stand in the doorway
stamping my boots and slapping my hands,
my shoulders
covered with stars.

Mary Oliver

Winter blessings.....

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Burning Bushes

Erupting Volcano at the MirageImage by Bertrand Duperrin via Flickr

Many of our lives follow routines. We sometimes feel that we are doing the same things over and over again. Get up, go to work. Take the kids to school. Run the errands. Do the housework. Cook some meals. There are special things thrown in, appointments or activities that we look forward to, but often our days fall in patterns that may begin to feel monotonous. And sometimes we begin to feel some discontent, some disappointment. Is this my life? If this what it will always be?

But the reality is that every day of our lives will be utterly unique. This moment that you are living right now and the opportunities inherent in it will never come again in just the same way. The same is true for the next moment and the next. And each of them carries the possibility of the Divine bursting in at any moment. I believe this to be absolutely true and it makes me want to do all I can to stay awake and to be ready for that possibility.

So today, on a day that was both exactly like and utterly unlike all of the days that had proceeded it, I was following my usual routines, doing my usual “stuff” around the house, when I got a phone call from a faith-based charitable organization that I work with requesting that I drop off an emergency food package to a “neighbor” (we call them neighbors in keeping with Jesus’ exhortation to love our neighbor) who was in a place of need. My schedule was open so I was able to say yes.

Later, in the car, I was thinking about the compassion and generosity of the people who had provided this 6 or 7 large bags of food that I was privileged to transport, when a young man waiting at a bus stop caught my eye. I could tell by his facial features that he had Downs’ Syndrome and he was dressed in the uniform of the carry out persons that work at our local grocery stores so I knew that he must be on his way to work. He was waiting alone and I was impressed by his independence and grateful for the opportunities that are afforded people with disabilities. My mind registered these observations and thoughts, but there were two things that were much more remarkable about this young man. The first was that he was dancing! He had ear buds stuck in his ears and was moving to some music that I could nothear, but have wished many times since to have been able to listen along with him. The other thing was his face. His face was turned upwards to the sky and it contained such a look of pure joy as I have rarely seen on any human face, even on that of a young child. I wish that I could paint a better picture of this, maybe you can imagine it along with me.

Immediately, my spirit and my body reacted. Sobs and laughter spilled from my chest and my throatall at the same time and all in a split second I am a person who gets “choked up” very easily. So easily that marching bands make me cry. Yes, marching bands! But, I have never had an experience like this one. This young man was gushing joy like an erupting volcano and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time to be in the path of that stunning blessing. His joy welled up in my spirit and flowed back out into the world in the form of my laughter and my tears. I wrote in another blog that I often have tears when I am in the presence of Truth and Beauty. These are simply two words for God. As I laughed and I cried I was aware that I had just seen the face of God. (I am very grateful that I was in the car by myself. I think that I would have frightened any passengers that I might have had.)

I am sure that you have all heard this little poem:

Earth's crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees,

takes off his shoes.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

I hope that you will all be aware of the opportunities to take off your shoes today. You won’t regret it.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

What the Fog Left Behind

Here is a tiny taste of the beauty of the ice fog that we are experiencing here.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Fog and Frost

Anchorage has been blanketed in fog now for days. As I drove the kids to school, the fog was so dense around us that I couldn’t tell where we were on the highway. The familiar landmarks along the road were obscured and I had no idea how much ground we had covered until the next exit sign or building would emerge out of the murk and once again I would be able to get my bearings. In the meantime, I kept my eyes on the tail lights in front of me, thankful for the intrepid commuters who were forging the way ahead of us. Because the winter days are short and the nights are very dark in Alaska, the fog seems all the more deep and impenetrable.

My inner life mirrors our recent weather and foggy conditions. I am not traveling in utter blackness, but it is certainly obscure and darkened. I am not lost or frightened, I know that there is a path ahead of me, and I am pretty sure that I know where I am headed.

One of my places of greatest discomfort has always been confusion. I would much prefer pain, even deep grief, if I could make just a little bit of sense of it. But to live in uncertainty is a deeply challenging place. It requires me to relinquish control, to accept that I don’t know and to wait until some sort of understanding might dawn. Or not.

For the first time in my life, I actually feel a great relief at waiting in the dark, a new comfort with what is unknown. I have always felt obligated to get things figured out and to understand exactly what is happening and why, to know what the next step is or the next spiritual project. But, for now, I am content to be pulled along by the night, trusting that the light will come again.

There is more to my story about the fog that we experience here in Alaska, for it also offers us an amazing and wondrous experience. As the sun rises and the fog eventually lifts, the mist leaves behind a layer of perfect white crystals, hoarfrost, upon everything. Every limb, branch and piece of dried grass are covered, utterly transforming the landscape. Everything glitters. Everything is new. Perfect white against a blue, blue sky. Is it possible that my own inner landscape could also be so beautifully altered?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Simple Pleasures and Small Sorrows

On Sunday, drove on down the Seward Highway to the awe inspiring Turnagain Pass to make our annual foray out into the woods to find and chop down a Christmas tree. We had decided that we needed to get a smaller tree this year. We recently had a new wood stove installed and didn’t feel that we had the space for our usual large tree. We were thinking 8 or 9 feet, compared to our usual 12-14 ft. Pickings seemed particularly slim, but eventually we found a tree that was not perfect, but definitely loveable. We have found in our years of hunting down a tree in the Alaska wilderness, that there is no such thing as a perfect tree, but every year, the lack of symmetry, the drooping of branches, and dropping of needles has never kept us from loving our tree and thinking that it is wonderful.

Everyone took a turn chopping, as usual. My efforts were particularly feeble, I must admit. Who knew that you need to actually aim? While my husband Mark is always the work horse of this family tradition, Tim is now old enough and big enough to take a large share of the actual labor of hauling the tree around, and I shouldered the small end for the last 200 ft. or so. Annie carried the axe back out, so we all contributed. Back at home, by the time Mark chopped the bottom 4 feet off of the tree and brought it in to the house, we found that it was the usual 12 ft or so! So much for getting the little one.

Tim, buried in the branches

We all love the process of putting up the Christmas tree and one of the best parts is getting out the ornaments. I’m sure that you also love opening the box of ornaments, lifting out various ones and reliving the memories and Christmases that goes along with each one. But, we are especially fortunate. Mark has inherited a collection of antique Christmas ornaments that has been passed down from his great uncle. They are kept in a specially designed wooden crate and I don’t exaggerate when I say that there are hundreds of them. Many of the ornaments are unique and beautiful, some are quirky, and some are down right ugly. They are all delightful and irreplaceable.

Our Christmas tree will never make the centerfold of House Beautiful. When we get our lights up and all that conglomeration of ornaments, it is downright gaudy. But, we just keep piling them all on. We love each one too much to leave it in the box for another year. And, we think that our tree is perfectly stunning. You know how some people have the ugliest dog in the world and they just can’t see it because they love him so darn much? Well, that’s how we are with our tree.

See how pretty it can be?

At bedtime, I couldn’t bear to turn the lights off on the tree after we had spent so much time getting it all together. I wanted to gaze at it on and on. So, Annie and I decided to camp out on the floor in front of it and leave the lights on all night. The fire in the wood stove was just dying down and Annie and I, tucked warmly into our sleeping bags, drifted off to sleep.

We were awoken a little past midnight by Mark calling down that the tree had fallen over. The sound had woken him while the two of us slept right through it. The tree had crashed onto the couch and the counter, missing the two of us, but breaking many of our beautiful (and did I mention, irreplaceable?) ornaments.

We immediately set about putting things back into a little bit of order and picking up as much glass as we could and simultaneously, I began letting go. Letting go of my attachment to these ornaments that we have come to love and that I just naturally assumed will be part of my Christmases for the rest of my life. I have spoken about non-attachment in a few of my other posts including the one about my perfect little teapot, but today I realize that I am still in the process of really understanding this concept.

As I picked up those shards of glass, I felt loss and disappointment, sadness and yes, grief. For, they would not be coming back. There was no putting them back together. There was no replacing them. But, instead of feeling all of those feelings, I set them aside. I set them aside in the name of my spirituality and the higher ideal of being unattached to material things. They were just things and I needed to let them go.

But all day today, I have known in my spirit that just letting them go was not all that I needed to do. I needed to be able to release them, yes. I needed to hold them in my open hands and let the universe carry them away, but at the very same time, I needed to feel myself loving them, missing them, grieving them.

The concept of unattachment has to do with feeling all of the beautiful and sacred feelings that we have toward something, those very feelings that make us want to cling and to never let it go, while at the same time saying, “I know that this little piece of the world was never really mine to keep.” It may seem like a subtle difference. But ultimately, it is the difference between denying my emotions and experiencing them. Feeling my grief is not an indication of my clinging, it is a manifestation of my loving.

On this Advent afternoon, as twilight approaches already at 2:30 pm, I am sure that it is part of my spiritual path to let a tear fall and to feel that ache in my chest for these little pieces of delight, these ornaments, that have decorated my Christmastime with happiness for these many years. I will miss them.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

I Need Your Help

girl with bookImage by Tom (hmm a rosa tint) via Flickr

A few months ago I wrote a post about feeling overwhelmed by the amount of books and written materials that I have at my disposal and the thought that maybe I need to start a practice to address how distracted I have become in regards to all of those book possibilities. Here is a reprint of part of that post:

As a reader and as a lover of books, I feel like a buzzing bee that stops and takes a sweet sip from this flower or that flower, always with an eye on the horizon and the next tempting taste. But what I really want to do is to sink deep down into the middle of those fragrant petals and take a long, slow drink of the beauty and wonder of words. And I know that I cannot do that in the midst of a meadow bursting with blooms. I am envisioning a sunny pasture with a just a few brilliant blossoms dotting the green grass. A manageable number to which I can give my undivided and loving attention.

And so I am pondering, thinking about, praying over setting a discipline in my life in which I don’t bring any new written material into my life. I will set a moratorium on more words. I get a slightly panicked feeling just thinking about it. I’m like a book junkie who knows that it’s time for a stay in rehab but want to just get my last few fixes before the door closes behind me. Will I be able to do this? Do I really want to? How long should I keep it in place? 3 months? 6 months? A year? (I know with absolute clarity that it should be a year, but the prospect is terrifying!)

Here’s my plan:

I will keep my current magazine subscriptions but not subscribe to any new ones. (Maybe I should subscribe to The Sun and Shambala Sun before I start because I really, really love them. Angst!)

I will not buy any new books except for my book club selections and I will attempt to get those from the library.

I will not check out books from the library.

I will accept books that are gifts.

I have set my date: January 1, 2010. But means that I have one more month to collect any books that I may want to spend this next year with! So, I am asking for your input. Tell me about the books in your life that you just couldn’t live without. What have you read lately that you just love? Are there any novels that you would recommend? What about spiritual reading? What are the things that are really speaking to you right now? So go check your book shelves or just your memory banks and let me know!

And for those of you who are lurking out there and don’t post or are unable to do so, please consider trying it this time or send me an email. I am really excited about hearing from all of you.

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Monday, November 30, 2009

Slow Downs

One of my favorite things about living in Alaska is… Snow!! But, what is soft, white and gorgeous piled up in my yard, layered on the trees and covering the mountains turns into something dangerous and life threatening on our roads and highways.

We received about 10 inches of snow on Friday and then a little more last night, but as I set out to drive my kids to school, I didn’t give the road conditions much thought. We live on the outskirts of town and the school is located close to downtown Anchorage, a distance of 12 miles or so along the main highway. Almost immediately there was a traffic slowdown. We were inching along for miles. As I checked the car clock I realized that the kids would definitely be late for school. Eventually, we passed the area that was causing the problem where there were multiple cars in the ditch on both sides of a divided highway. I suddenly felt very grateful for this slowdown in my life. If everyone had been going 60 miles an hour, I probably would have as well and I might not have had any idea that the roads were actually icy and dangerous. I felt well cared for in that long line of cars as we drove slowly and carefully, mindful of the conditions and of the cars around us.

It has made me think of other slowdowns, interruptions or disruptions in my day and in my life. How much of the time can I look at them as gifts? How often am I grateful for them? We are headed into what many consider the busiest time of our year. There will be long lines, full parking lots, harried service people, and short tempers. Can I remember to allow the outer inconvenience or disruption to be an opportunity to slow down inwardly?

I also want to be intentional about finding the places in this beautiful time of year for simple pleasures, quiet and peace. I look forward tonext weekend when my family and I bundle up in our coats and boots, drive two hours down the highway and then tramp into the woods to cut down our not-so-perfect Christmas tree. We have a lovely contemplative service at our church celebrating the winter solstice, our longest night, which I can feel my heart leaning toward, even now. A friend of mine has formed a group that gathers on Wednesdays at noon to practice body prayer together. It is a time to pause in the middle of our day and in the middle of our week to experience God and to come back to ourselves.

May you have many “slowdowns” today and in these days to come. And when they come, may you recognize them and welcome them as gifts of peace.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Zen of Seeing

I know artists whose medium is life itself and who express the inexpressible without brush, pencil, chisel or guitar. They neither paint nor dance. Their medium is Being. Whatever their hand touches has increased life…. They are the artists of being alive.

Frederick Franck, The Zen of Seeing

I, personally, have a deep longing to bring a little piece of God into this world. I try to string a few words together, sometimes I take some photos, put color on paper, sing, or dance. But, my truest call is to this Art of Being. To offer some kindness, compassion, a little understanding.

To be a little spark of God in this world, this is my prayer.

A man named Bob is a part of my faith community, one of the founders of our church 45 years ago. Any time he is at the church, he makes it his business to welcome every single person that comes in that door. (We are a large church for our denomination and the building is very busy with many different groups using it.) Our congregation, from its inception, has been a welcoming and inclusive place and currently, it is really a grace filled place where people are loving and giving. It is my belief that Bob was absolutely foundational in setting that Christ-like tone for us. He is a beautiful example of an artist of Being.

This weekend of Thanksgiving (for those of us in the U.S.) is a wonderful time to remember the people in your life who are the artists of life. Remember to give thanks for them and even to tell them how much you appreciate them being in your life. And don’t forget to share the story with me! I would love to hear it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

An Ordinary Day

I was sent this poem a few days ago. It is such a beautiful follow-up to yesterday's post.



by Wendell Berry

Though he was ill and in pain,

in disobedience to the instruction

would have received if he had asked,

the old man got up from his bed,

dressed, and went to the barn.

The bare branches of winter had emerged

through the last leaf-colors of fall,

the loveliest of all, browns and yellows

delicate and nameless in the gray light

and the sifting rain. He put feed

in the troughs for eighteen ewe lambs,

sent the dog for them, and she

brought them. They came eager

to their feed, and he who felt

their hunger was by their feeding

eased. From no place in the time

of present places, within no boundary

nameable in human thought,

they had gathered once again,

the shepherd, his sheep, and his dog

with all the known and the unknown

round about to the heavens' limit.

Was this his stubbornness or bravado?

No. Only an ordinary act

of profoundest intimacy in a day

that might have been better. Still

the world persisted in its beauty,

he in his gratitude, and for this

he had most earnestly prayed.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Work We Choose

“This is not how I want to be spending my day”, was the thought that entered my head as I pulled my van into a parking spot for the 15th time in one day. I felt that I had been hauling people around, getting in and out of the car, entering and leaving buildings, looking down hallways for people, dropping off and picking up all day long. But almost immediately another voice said, “You chose this work, and it is important.”

It is true. I did choose this life. Thirteen years ago, I was a young family physician. It was something that I was good at, but it never brought me joy. Actually, it brought me a lot of stress and anxiety. When our first child was born, I made the decision to stay home full time and let my license and my certification lapse. Except for my ministry of spiritual direction, I have not worked outside of the home since.

If I stop to think about what I “do” at all, it tends to be in terms of how mundane the things in my life can be, of how much time seems to be tied up in things that, on the surface, seem unimportant. Shopping, driving my kids to school, paying the bills, cleaning the house.

In her book, Seven Sacred Pauses, Macrina Wiederkehr says, “When we begin our day, most of us probably do not approach our work with the awareness and belief that we are artists involved in continuing the work of creation. From the most sublime to the most menial, work is creativity.”

Years ago, I had a friend who said to me, “I don’t see any eternal value in cleaning my house.” Even at that stage of my journey, I had a glimpse that all things have eternal “value” when done with mindfulness, care and love. And yet, now, these many years later, it didn't seem to apply to just driving around town all day. (Actually, I’m still having a bit of hard time with it, even though I believe it to be true.)

So, as I begin yet another day, I set the intention that wiping the counter, feeding the dog, or sweeping out the garage is all my work. It is my good work. It is also my prayer and in some crazy, mystical sense, it is my offering to the creation of the world.

May all of your work be wonderfully creative this day!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Why I read, I think....

Twilight booksImage by Annafur via Flickr

I have a friend who desperately wants me to read the novel Twilight. And I am desperately resisting. The book is about a teenage girl that falls in love with a vampire. I know that some of my readers who are fans of the series (you know who you are!) will tell me that it is about much more than that, but for the sake of this post we will leave it there. When my friend asked me why I didn’t want to read it I peevishly answered, “I don’t have time for Harlequin romances with vampires.” This wasn’t my highest self speaking, but truth be told, I’ve been having a hard time expressing the more exact reason why I do not read this book. Here are some of the possibilities:

(1) I’m afraid that I might like it. (2) I’m a complete and total book snob. (3) I don’t have time for books like this. (4) I don’t do escapism. (5) I want the books I read to “matter”, whatever that might mean.

There is probably a nugget of truth in each one of those reasons, some much more than others, but the last one comes closest to hitting the nail on the head.

We all read for different reasons at different times, simple entertainment, information, distraction, escape (the “Calgon take me away!” commercial is popping into my head), the enjoyment of books and words. But for me, whether I am perusing the shelves at the bookstore or library, reading the reviews of books at the back of my various magazines and journals, asking friends what they are reading, or voting for our next book club pick, I am looking for a book that will change me. Change might come about from being exposed to new ideas or new information, but also simply from being in the presence of the beauty and grace that I find in great writing. I’m not saying that this desire is better or worse or higher or lower than any other reason for reading a book. It’s just true for me at this stage of my life and I want to attend to it.

When I choose a new book, it is because, on some level, I am always hoping that it will contain both Truth and Beauty. Now, don’t worry. I am not going to try to tell you what Truth (note the capital “T”) means on the global or cosmic scale, and certainly not on the level of the personal because of course, I have no idea. I can only know my own Truth, once in a while. But in those moments when I really experience Truth, I feel it physically, in my body. Sometimes it manifests just as a prick behind my eyes, sometimes as running rivers of tears, but most often it is just some sort of small shift within me, a recognition of being in the presence of something that I already know, of coming home to the right place.

What do you hope for when you pick up a book? How do you know your own truth?

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Fumbling toward the Divine

There are no words

for the deepest places in my life.

They cannot be named

or wrestled into some safe enclosure of explanation.

I fumble around looking

for some way to bring God

into a world that is already bursting with the Divine.

They say that it is the poet’s job

To get said

that which is unsayable.

But what if it turns out to be true

that some things

were better left


Monday, November 16, 2009

A Wrong Number?

A standard telephone keypad.Image via Wikipedia

This is not much of a post, but a just have to share with you how the tiniest little things can change my day if I approach them with the right attitude.

Just this minute, the phone rang. I said, "Hello" and the person on the other end said, "Who is this?" It sounded like an older man with an asian accent. (I thought for a minute that it might be my friend, Roy, but his accent is quite young.)

It's not considered overly good manners to just say "who is this" and sometimes I am irritated and taken aback, but this time I replied, quite brightly, "This is Rebecca!"

"Oh...what number is this?" It was pretty apparent at this point that this was a wrong number but I told him my phone number. "Oh...", he said. "I have a wrong number."

"No problem", I responded nicely, thinking that he would just hang up. But, instead he said, "You have the beautiful voice."

"Well, thank you", I said, feeling light and happy. And he hung up.

Here's what's funny. I really believe him.
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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Looking for the Skillful

A line in the October issue of The Sun caught my eye. “I’d been reluctant to read The Long Emergency because I’d feared it would be debilitating..”

I have often avoided certain movies, television shows or books because I feared that they would be depressing. I think that most of the time, that was not the word that I was looking for. Sure, some things are just complete downers, mostly because sometimes they make me despair for the human race as in “Is this really who we are or we’ve become?” But, I think that the word debilitating is a more accurate word for what I would like to avoid. Debilitate means to hinder, delay, weaken. I don’t want that in my life. I need all the movement and strength that I can get.

A few years ago, friends of mine were all watching The Sopranos. They really wanted me to see it, but I resisted. I just couldn’t see that I would find it entertaining or helpful. But, each year it won awards upon awards and I figured that all of those critics/experts couldn’t be wrong so I picked up the first disc. I was somewhat hooked. The whole idea of a mafia boss having marital and childrearing problems after a long day of extortion and murder and then having panic attacks that sent him to therapy made me have this, “hey, we all have some things in common” kind of experience and I kept watching. Eventually, though, the series got darker and darker. I remember one day I was exercising and watching. Annie came through and I said, “Get out! Get out! You can’t see this.” It wasn’t the first time that she had heard this. That day she stood there and said, “I don’t think you should be watching this Mom. I don’t think that it’s good for you.” She stated what my heart already knew and very shortly afterward, I gave it up.

Did the Sopranos hinder me? Weaken me? When I think about how I felt after watching it there was a heaviness in me, maybe even a darkness. In her profile Pollinatrix over at The Whole Blooming World talks about being accused of trying to find “way too much meaning in life”, something that I am guessing that most of my readers are guilty of as well. I watched the Sopranos and I looked for the deeper meaning, the lessons that I might apply to my own life. I tried to feel compassion for people who are bumbling around in the dark, hurting each other. But the price was too high to my mind, my spirit and I think, even my body.

Inappropriate is a word that we use a lot with our kids in regard to movies and television shows. Inappropriate generally means that there is strong sex or violence in the movie. But, my 13 year old, a smart boy, says to us, “Why is it appropriate for you and not for me?” And we come back with the tried and true, “Because you’re not mature enough”. I am afraid that the truest answer to Tim’s question, in many cases, is, “It isn’t appropriate for me.” It isn’t helpful. The apostle Paul put it this way: Fix your thoughts on what is true and honorable and right. Think about things that are pure and lovely and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” But that sounds so boring! So preachy and puritanical. Probably most of us think that the Apostle Paul was too uptight and wouldn’t have been any fun to hang out with any way. Can’t we just have a little fun?

Maybe some of us think that the Buddha would be a little easier to be around. Well, the Buddhists would call the choices we make between what is true and lovely and that which is less so skillful or unskillful. Unskillful choices lead to suffering. Skillful choices will lead to peace and happiness. And not just for me, possibly for the whole world. I’m pretty sure that Paul and Siddartha are saying the same thing.

What are your experiences? Are there examples of violent movies or television shows that you feel have been helpful to you and of spiritual benefit? What sorts of things feel inappropriate to you? Maybe you have less obvious examples of things in our world that might be debilitating for us. I would love to hear.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Dazzling Darkness

The title of Mary Oliver's poem from which I took the name of my blog is Spring and it is very winter here. But the phrase that so captured me, "dazzling darkness" is perfectly apt. We have just begun our descent into winter, but the combination of the dark and the snow is dazzling indeed.

Whatever time of the year it is, I cannot express how deeply this poem moves me. Any time. Every time. If you told me that I could only have one favorite poem, this would be it. At least for now. As I read it over again, I see that it carries some of the same themes that I was working with yesterday, the question of how we are to love this world.



a black bear

has just risen from sleep

and is staring

down the mountain.

All night

in the brisk and shallow restlessness

of early spring

I think of her,

her four black fists

flicking the gravel,

her tongue

like a red fire

touching the grass,

the cold water.

There is only one question:

how to love this world.

I think of her


like a black and leafy ledge

to sharpen her claws against

the silence

of the trees.

Whatever else

my life is

with its poems

and its music

and its cities,

it is also this dazzling darkness


down the mountain,

breathing and tasting;

all day I think of her –

her white teeth,

her wordlessness,

her perfect love.

~ Mary Oliver ~

And I long to enter into that Wordlessness. Into that Perfect Love.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Hanging on to Hope

Recently, my daughter was voicing her opinions about how she thought that the world be a much better place if we changed the ways that meat was raised and produced in this country. She felt that the meat would likely be more expensive and that therefore people would eat less meat and it would create health for the animals, the humans who eat them and the planet. My son is a bit of a cynic at the ripe old age at 13. “People will never go for that”, he said. “Nobody is going to give up their cheap McDonald’s”. I pointed out to him that in the past, human beings as a group have actually changed their health habits for the better because they were educated in those directions or because there were consequences for continuing in the bad habits. Cigarette smoking is definitely one prime example, as are the use of seatbelts and protective helmets for lots of different sports.

I was relating this to an acquaintance last night who said, “I wish that I could share your optimism. I just watch one hour of Meet the Press and I got so depressed and pessimistic.” He then spent the next five minutes or so listing all of the things that we are up against. The next time he took a breath, I said, “Man! Now I’m depressed!”

Last night I was reading from Henri Nouwen’s book, The Way of the Heart.

Many voices wonder if humanity can survive its own destructive powers. As we reflect on the increasing poverty and hunger, the rapidly spreading hatred and violence within as well as between countries, and the frightening buildup of nuclear weapons systems, we come to realize that our world has embarked on a suicidal journey.

It seems that the darkness is thicker than ever, that the powers of evil are more blatantly visible than ever, and that the children of God are being tested more severely than ever.

During the last few years I have been wondering what it means to be a minister in such a situation. What is required of men and women who want to bring light into the darkness….? What is required of a man or a woman who is called to enter fully into the turmoil and agony of the times and speak a word of hope?

These words were written in 1981 and I think that we would all agree that things have gotten a lot worse in that period of time. How do we hang on to hope in the face of the unbelievably complicated troubles of this country, this international community, this world? My son, again at 13, says, “We’re doomed. Why bother trying?” And some part of me wants to agree with him. I pray that it is a very small part, for as a person of faith I am called to hope and to help, whatever that might mean.

One more story: During the height of the Cold War, the spiritual teacher Ram Dass was asked whether the world was facing a nuclear Armageddon or, as some were prophesying, a “new age” of peace and love and deeper awareness. Ram Dass said, “I used to think I should have an opinion on this. But as I examined it, I saw that if it’s going to be Armageddon and we’re going to die, the best think to do to prepare for it is to quiet my mind, open my heart, and deal with the suffering in front of me. And if it’s going to be the new age, the best thing to do is to quiet my mind, open my heart, and deal with the suffering in front of me.”

This feels very true. And so I go on, turning the lights off and the heat down, eating less meat, helping the needy here in Anchorage, giving away my money and my time, and keeping my heart as open as I can. Will it be enough to save us? I don’t know. But it’s what I can do.

Please let me know your thoughts on hope. What keeps you moving forward both in the world and in your own spirit? Where do you find support for this journey?