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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