Taste and See

Scott Russell Sanders prefaces his book, Staying Put: Making A Home in a Restless World, with this vignette:

On coming to a new place, my father would take a pinch of dirt, sprinkle it in his palm, sniff it, stir it with a blunt finger, squeeze it, then take it on his tongue, tasting. When I first saw him do this, I was puzzled. Why eat dirt? “Just trying to figure out where I am,” he explained.

 Oddly enough, I, too, am attempting to taste the substance of this place not because I’m staying put, as Sander’s title says, but because I do desire to make a home in a restless world. I am trying to fashion a life that is firmly grounded in a home and a community. I wonder if that dwelling place is not a physical one since mine keeps shifting.

We spent a few days with our son in New York City during the latter part of the holiday. Today, I am up early reading and writing my morning pages and making a cup of my own kind of coffee in the quiet morning. I have returned to work and the rhythms that are familiar to me. However, I cannot shake the realizations that this is a new year, that I have choices to make that define each day, and that it does matter how and to what I pay attention in the everydayness of my life in this place and beyond.

Beyond the familiar routines, this physical house where I live now is blessed. There is a tangible welcome in these walls that I cannot define, that might require distance to name.

What have I learned from the dirt, the physical substance of the places I’ve called home?

When Mitch and I first married, we were both in graduate school and knew without a doubt that the places we lived were temporary—our tiny apartments alongside others who were perpetually on their way. Never the less, we cultivated friendships, planted gardens, and started our family. Sheltered and encouraged by our common circumstances, we shared meager meals with neighbors, fellow students, professors, and church folk. We felt both the sacredness and temporality of our sparse possessions.

After a year’s CPE residency for Mitch, we moved on to a “real job” for him and added another child to our family. We lived in a changing and so-called “transitional” neighborhood—many long-time residents were fleeing to the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. We stayed put until Mitch’s job ended because the church could no longer support a multiple person staff. While on paper we didn’t have enough money to make ends meet ourselves, somehow we always did. We bought our first house, were nurtured by tall pine trees and planted another garden.  When we left, we received two pewter goblets etched with the words “Love” and “Care” that emblematize the spiritual, relational, and physical sustenance we experienced in that place.

The next soil wasn’t so welcoming. The big empty Texas sky belied the lonesomeness of that landscape. The only tree in our yard was a honey locust with big thorns and small leaves that offered no shade from the scorching summer heat and warded off any tree climbing our children did try. The exterminator, our “ant man,” wondered if our new house was indeed built on a sandy anthill. In addition to the thorny tree, the yard was dangerously dotted with fire ant mounds and sugar ants trailed out of the drain in our bathtub and up the walls of our pantry regularly. We unsuccessfully built a raised bed garden and even tried to import dirt that looked to us more amenable to growing vegetables. We struggled to cultivate friendships in the stretched out communities, drove 30 miles to a more progressive church, and never quite fit in between the long distances and distant personalities we traversed.

That Texas dirt and those anthills didn’t let us go easily as we moved back to the tall hardwoods and black dirt of my Midwestern childhood. Since we didn’t actually sell our Texas house until well after we moved, we lived in a ramshackle apartment, again in transition for the time. We didn’t really know our neighbors or have a place to play under any trees or plant a garden.  We did have the promise of being in a new community where we could finally establish our home.

And we did buy another house where we all grew to new stages of our lives. We replaced subfloors, damaged by previous owners pets, pulled down green and gold wallpaper, and painted every inch of the walls and ceilings and closets to make it ours. We lived alongside the tall hardwood trees that sheltered us and the perennials that abundantly appeared every spring. We delighted in the yellow finches that took advantage of the profusion of purple coneflowers outside our dining room’s glass doors. Those birds must have known the healing and strengthening properties of those flowers both to the lookers and takers. And from my current vantage point, I see that it was in the dirt of that place that I grew stronger even when I couldn’t actually know what was building up inside me in response to significant challenges I encountered.

The next two places we lived I sensed as transitional… always anticipating something else that I couldn’t define. This dirt produced an almost perfect Oak tree in the center of our yard and my morning gaze. That tree anchored me as I lived through transitions of our “empty nest,” job and career changes for both Mitch and me, and the unsettling of living between communities of people and places. We planted a few tomato plants, breathed in the vibrant blossoms of neighborhood trees not our own, and encountered unlikely friendships that we have carried with us.

And so, not quite 20 months ago, we came to this physical place, nourishing a sense of belonging and staying put. We have a tree in our front yard that has been here for an estimated 200 years. The giant Chestnut Swamp Oak marks the stability and strength that dirt can produce. And amidst all this stability, we have an appointment with a local realtor next week.

Scott Russell Sanders continues,

Traditional peoples distinguish between tales of the everyday world and tales of the spirit world, between history and myth, between profane and sacred. The distinction rests, of course, on a belief that there is a spirit world, an order that infuses and informs the changing surfaces we see. Visions of that sustaining realm may be sought through spiritual discipline, but they may not be summoned. If they come, they come as gifts, unforeseen. By telling stories, we conserve the memory of their passing, and we prepare ourselves for the next illumination…

 By telling the holy, we acknowledge that life is a gift. From where or what, and why, we cannot know. All we do know is that it issues forth, moment by moment, con by con, ever fresh, astounding in its richness and beauty. None of this is to gainsay the pain, the suffering, the eventual death that awaits all created things. But we measure that pain and suffering, we mourn that death, against the sheer exuberant flow of things. We can lose our life only because it has been given to us.

 It is my true home, I believe, to live and tell the stories of my life and its changing surfaces, to catch a glimpse of a holy dwelling place. For me, the tales are a new creation.

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Balancing Round Stones

I wish I could remember what she really said. I do remember what I heard.

It was at the end of yoga, when we are seated with prayer hands at our hearts, eyes closed. As I understand this final gesture, it is a symbol of gratitude and respect for one another or Namaste. The teacher usually says something like, “the light in me acknowledges and honors the radiant light in each of you.”   I read someplace that the gesture reminds us of the truth that we are all one when we live from the heart. A simple intention.

Amy, my yoga guide, often reads something just before this final gesture. On this evening, it was about the seemingly disparate pieces of our lives as I heard it—the things that we feel, do and are that, at times, seem to be floating around aimlessly. Her admonishment was to let them be.

That idea of pieces of life in disarray describes how I consider my life right now. However, the pieces aren’t only current; they span a lifetime.

Literary scholar Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of a great time and small time, and the unfinishedness [of literature] are ones I will unprofessionally use for my own purposes. Small time, as I understand the concept, is chronological time. The events of our lives happen at a particular moment in history that is measurable in this kind of time. Great time transcends our conception of chronological time. The example Bahktin uses are timeless stories, “works [that] break through the boundaries of their own time, they live in centuries, that is, in great time and frequently (with great works always) their lives there are more intense and fuller than are their lives within their own time.” Meaning transcends chronological time. The words and contexts that surround those words accumulate meaning over the passing of time and events both in and beyond our lives. Attentiveness to the everyday ordinariness of our lives requires the perspectives of both small time and great time.

 We recursively interpret meaning when we read a novel or retell any story—that conflates the time things are really happening and the layers of meaning accumulated over the living of centuries—an unfinishedness of words and events. And so I’m wondering if this is how it is with these “pieces” of my life. Do they have little meaning or one meaning on their own and in the moment, as they are hovering and noticeable? The meaning I hold shifts in the greater concept of time. It isn’t easy to let these pieces be. But, it is necessary.

Which brings me to a powerful metaphor for this letting be—balancing round stones. The story goes that there is a place in San Diego where you can try to balance round stones. Evidently, it is a difficult thing to do. First of all, I imagine how the stones came to be round or even rounded. I’ve encountered smooth rounded stones most often in some kind of moving water, where years of wearing of the elements have shaped them. According to the article I read, the crucial difference between those who could and couldn’t balance didn’t seem to be whether they knew a lot about stones or had a lot of techniques for balancing stones. The people who were able to balance the stones were able to focus their energies and “become one with the stones” bringing seemingly incompatible forces into harmony

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A simple intention or focus to live in God alone overturns all the usual ways of thinking and being that lead to the bigger picture of great time. It is the idea of paradox— I am able to hold two ideas that seem incompatible but somehow co-exist. We do this kind of balancing, I think, by focusing on God—goodness, grace, love—and not the completion of a task. I seem to be revisiting the truth that it is not about getting things done but doing what is before me in the right spirit and for the right reason. I recently finished some revisions I was required to do and it wasn’t so terrible. The most difficult part was my thinking too much about how I was doing. When I accompanied my friend and colleague to meet mentors for students’ internships, instead of focusing on all the wrongs of education, I was able to appreciate the story of a particular teacher. So what does it mean to let all the pieces or doings or whatever it is that our life is, be?

Letting the pieces be means living in great time – to know God’s goodness in each moment and circumstance. To be a faithful steward of all the pieces does not happen by trying to manage them with well thought out techniques. The kind of spiritual energy needed to balance round stones is a matter of letting go and receiving what is being given. It is the gradual emptying of our attachment to our small self, and I would add small time so that there is room for new conception. Trying to figure it all out is living in small time and self, leaving no room for the spirit and all those pieces to be. A simple intention.

Trading Talents

I love to think deeply and wrestle with all kinds of ideas. I have accomplished many things because of my ability. Reading over these blogs as I write (or other academic writing I do), I see how the thinking is sometimes confusing and I do wonder how all this matters. Thinking is also my shadow side. Overthinking, re-thinking, rehashing and even an abundance of ideas challenge me to be attentive to the moment. Overthinking, re-thinking, rehashing and even an abundance of ideas cause me to compare, doubt, defend, and be overly self-conscious. And somehow God speaks into the chaos.

In a newly released collection of Buechner’s writing, A Crazy Holy Grace, as Buechner’s words do, he offers another way to consider what I’ve been pondering. About the Parable of the Talents from Matthew 25: 14-30, he reflects:

I don’t know how you read it, but I take the talents—one gets five, one gets two, one gets one—as whatever it is that life deals us.

We are all dealt a hand of race, gender, family, place and even pain that we are to be stewards of. That’s what Buechner is personally writing about, being a good steward of pain. He recounts his father’s suicide and how his mother, brother, and he stewarded that pain. For me at this time, oddly, it is difficult to be a steward of my accomplishments that result from all that thinking.

How do I take the hand I’ve been dealt, the deep thinking self and maybe even those resulting accomplishments and do something that builds up the kingdom of God? How am I a good steward of those accomplishments? Is that thinking too much of myself?

Buechner goes on,

God does not sow the field of our life. He does not make these things happen…he doesn’t move us around like chess pieces. He does not sow, but he expects that out of whatever the world in its madness does to us, we will somehow reap a harvest…he expects us to deal with these things in creative and redemptive and life opening sorts of ways.

 Creative, redemptive and life opening sorts of way—that is key and might not mean the visionary off in the wild blue yonder (or internal yonder) kind of pondering I tend to do.

When I remember the time right after and even before I finished my Ph.D., I was focused on finding a job that validated my accomplishment. I thought that I needed a title from which to stand. I needed to put a “place,” an institution, behind my name. What or how that denoted worthiness, I am not sure. I keep bumping up against the emptiness of this kind of thinking, of centering my life on accomplishments. Why can’t the platform just be life? Is it possible to give up the I. I am trying to protect? Maybe I don’t have the guts to do…it.

I was reading an old journal yesterday that I came across while cleaning the bookshelf in my bedroom. Almost ten years ago, I grappled with many of the same issues that I live today. That was a year that challenged my accomplishments.  I had written, If I think of the risks I took today, it was with hesitation… I feel amazingly okay with leaving [my job] but still so much uncertainty, yet hope, about what will come next. And then, on another day, I remembered Buechner’s words that the question is not whether things that happen are chance things or God things—because they are both at once. There is no chance thing through which God cannot speak.

These questions I wrote ten years ago productively challenge my stewardship of accomplishments. How do I NOT make my work or what I do the criterion for my sense of self? How do I define myself or do I need to? How do I have a strong sense of call that minimizes my consciousness of my accomplishments and myself? Can I let go of the things that make me feel useful and significant?

Oddly enough, I was reading another Kathleen Norris book 10 years ago (I just reread parts of Cloister Walk because she was here at my University) and I wrote: Last night as I was reading The Virgin of Bennington, Kathleen Norris said, ‘I realized that doing what I needed to do meant giving up what I thought I wanted.’ That has happened to me, too, both then and now.

Richard Rohr, in Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, says that the soul swims in a sea of abundance, grace, and freedom that cannot always be organized. I take comfort in that kind of chaos, that unknowing that is pervasive in my own attempts to keep my head above water like my ten years ago thinking and today’s wondering attest. I can no longer join in the kind of striving I once did. Of that, I am fairly certain. So is my life telling me that it is okay to go with my gut on this one and not push? How do I steward my accomplishments? Or is that still a concern?

The truth emerges that it is not just over thinking that is my shadow side but resting on the laurels of my thinking self. It is when I am counting on my outward credentials and accomplishments to make me whole, to save me. The life I desire is when I realize that these things that have made me feel secure or are protective boundaries have failed me. Looking forward, which I am already doing, and looking backward in my mind for explanations and consolations, cause me unrest.

Unrest is a good word, here—that kind of unrest that comes from overthinking.

I am not resting and attentive to God’s provision in this moment. I am trying to find reasons, even good ones, that accomplishments are not responsible for my life at its deepest and truest. How do I participate in living in my own unique soul that is deeper than my accomplishments? How do I trade, or risk, as the parable implies, without fear or concern —to live from a deeper place than my ego or intellect?

I don’t have any answers, yet. Maybe this requires living into rather than thinking or both.

A Hidden Wholeness

Your will is our peace. Deliver me from the false choices that come from self-interest, cowardice, and lack of faith in you and give me vision and strength to do your will.   Margaret Cropper, 1886-1980

The voice of true simplicity prompts us to discern the foolishness of looking out only for ourselves and thus overlooking both the common good and our own human limits.     Martin Marty, Peace

 Martin Marty, noted religious historian, authored a series of books that weave images, ancient prayers and scripture in a provocative reflection. This prayer and quote is from one of those books: When True Simplicity is Gained: Finding spiritual clarity in a complex world. “Common good” are the words that stand out to me. In this day when everyone seems to be out for himself or herself, when even people who are in positions to build that common good tout their own goodness, expertness, or contributions, it is difficult to see past our own interests.

I’ve been involved in a meeting for two whole days to ponder and act as an agent of change. The conversations are stimulating, actually affirming my own knowledge and practice. Yet, at times, I’ve wrestled with my defensive reaction to the complexity of the issues. There are tangible limits to my influence. The challenging twist is that I will not be the one to actually enact those changes, at least in this place.

As I think of what I have to offer in both spiritual and educational conversations, how do I get to a place that I am not conscious of my own contributions but unselfconsciously share from an abundance of living? Human limits draw me back again to ponder what is possible and the common good challenges me to consider “good” more broadly.

It is difficult to imagine the next steps in my life and that reality of unknowing calls for trust. Not that God is moving us and our lives around according to some pre-conceived grand scheme of things but that God is a creator—in all the fullest sense of that notion. We are participating in the process. I can take guidance from ways that close and not ignore my own limitations that continually blind me from seeing what is good and right and growing.

There is a twinge of recognition that I am moving toward something more whole—that this kind of wholeness wasn’t where I expected it to be or even imagined was possible for me–  to borrow an insight from Parker Palmer, a hidden wholeness.

Guide me to discern the foolishness of looking out for myself and thus overlooking both the common good and our own human limits.

Struggle and Grace

Even when I know what to do, I don’t. Yesterday was one of those days. I began the day with good intentions and somehow lost my way. Struggle and grace are recursively lived.

I used to get up in the morning and pray more overtly than I read or wrote. My oldest journals are merely dates, a record of scripture and occasionally a quote of something I was reading.

I used to pray in the presence of the almost perfect oak tree in my backyard (a few houses ago) or walking in the sparkling newness of the snow or noticing the sunset in the park. I was prayerful walking to work when I lived in Indiana, both when the purple crocus peeked through a mass of dead leaves in the spring and when the blazing fall color surrounded the same path.

Now I watch the sun come up through the massive tree in my front yard, occasionally sitting on the porch swing, appreciating the massiveness of the life of that tree and the Holston Mountain range that is visible beyond. Walking from the oval on the King University campus to my office in Kline Hall takes my breath away in any kind of day or season. Those are prayers that lift me up out of myself to see the goodness and majesty of God, to know the blessedness of living in this beautiful world, to feel the propitious presence of something greater than myself.

So what about today? Yesterday I missed that awe. Instead, I buried myself inside myself, knowing what I was missing. I paid more attention to the worlds’ gossip and trouble. I was concerned with how I measured up and lamented how I failed to be the person I somehow think I should be, all the while doing nothing to change the narrative.

To realize that God in the Holy Spirit is abundantly present even in those times is one I believe St. Ignatius was calling me to through his prayerful reflection, Daily Examen. In those moments when the way I am thinking or behaving does not match the way I want to be thinking or behaving—when I am stuck inside of myself—that is also a place of prayer.

Spiritual Muscle Memory

I have a tendency to share my opinion, even when it is not solicited. Telling someone else what I think when that person didn’t really want to know rarely affects the person or the situation, at least in ways I intended.

However, I’m struggling with a larger question. When do I speak out because what is in front of me is wrong (again, in my opinion)? When are there principles to uphold and when is it just my opinion? When am I complicit with the status quo by not saying or doing anything? And speaking of doing, is action always better than words or are both needed?

In a recent chapel, the speaker was a young graduate of our university. She had been a quite successful wrestler, an unexpected sport, and the title of her sermon was “Wrestling with Faith.” I appreciated her new perspective of a spiritual muscle memory that practicing our faith engenders and her timeworn reflection of the call to radical Christianity. She concluded with a poem by Wendell Berry as a prayer, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front. The words of the poem challenge me to consider how I develop a spiritual muscle memory from both quotidian and radical perspectives.

This is only a portion of Berry’s poem (it deserves reading the whole here):

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
… Ask the questions that have no answers.
Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.
Practice resurrection.

I have no answer, really, for the questions I’m posing. Practicing is a process of showing up in fullness, not of always getting it right. And prayer might be a place of practice, where I will develop that spiritual muscle memory that the wise young lady wrestler considered.

Heidi De Jonge, whose blog I read recently, wrestles with a similar dilemma. Speaking of the “places” of prayer, she describes a place where paradox pervades understanding.

 … when one strong value in my life bumps up against another, this is the place of prayer. For example, when my commitment and desire to DO THE HARD THINGS bumps up against my commitment and desire to PARTICIPATE IN THE ABUNDANT LIFE OF JESUS and it just doesn’t seem like I can live into both of these values… this is the place of prayer.                        The Place of Prayer, THE TWELVE

One of my challenges, in my academic position, is to “find a right relation to institutions with which I have a lifelong lover’s quarrel” as Parker Palmer contends. I have a complex and sometimes contentious relationship with school. Words are difficult to come by that make sense of the passion I have for what could be or perceive should be that bumps up against the de-humanizing practices I interpret as I observe and experience school. Are even these kinds of dilemmas places of prayer? Yes.

So I will continue to wrestle with my strong ideas (aka opinions) that crash against my desire to practice resurrection, to find the grace of God that surpasses knowledge.

Breathing

Yin yoga is a still practice; the kind of thing where, while seemingly doing nothing, you are doing everything. It is, as I understand the practice, cultivating an internal awareness of our body: holding poses, breathing into some discomfort, knowing when to pull back, knowing when to breathe into an uncomfortable space and stay.  It’s actually quite complex.

Amy, my guide in Yin practice, noted that when we reach an “edge,” when we have tension but not quite pain, resolve to stay in the position. Let go and breathe into that awareness.  Let go and breathe.  Let go for the duration of the pose, in our case, 3-5 minutes. Staying with the pose strengthens and stretches the body’s connective tissue (tendons, ligaments, fascia) that bind the other parts of us together. Amy suggested that this letting go could be long-term, even, beyond this time on a mat.  Hmmm.

The last few days, for more than a few days, I have been on edge, anxious and angry, really, although I don’t want to call it that. I’ve focused more on how I measure up—my differences with people and in situations. Some of these people or situations have deeply affected me, people I love, and ideas I hold a little too closely. Some of these people and situations are of little consequence actually, however, they seem big at the moment.

Breathing into that space. Breathing into an awareness that this is not about being right or better or different when the situation is approaching painful. Breathing into an awareness of a higher power: the power of God, of relationship, that is more expansive than this moment. Letting go. Staying present. Giving attention, life breath, in response to anger and anxiousness—another kind of tension and un-comfortableness of my own making.

 There is a line in a book I am reading that keeps coming before me.

It [meltemi, the Greek name for the north wind blowing across the Aegean sea] soothes the desperate traveler’s brow, the traveler who has not yet traveled long enough to have left his future behind.                 Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces       

I have been a desperate traveler. Desperate is an apt description of my sense of proving my rightness, my stance, and my view of the world. What does it mean to travel long enough to leave my future behind? The paradox might be to let go of the positioning, striving, and building that accompanies our human conception of where we are going. To practice stillness, to live, by breathing into this present moment.

When I moved to Bloomington, I thought the move was a step to get to a future by completing a degree. Little did I know that the by-the-way relationships I happened upon were not preparing me for some unforeseen next but were enriching, building and blessing the present.