Anchoress

Wikipedia: An anchorite or anchoret (female: anchoress) is someone who, for religious reasons, withdraws from secular society so as to be able to lead an intensely prayer-oriented, ascetic, or Eucharist-focused life. Whilst anchorites are frequently considered to be a type of religious hermit, unlike hermits they were required to take a vow of stability of place, opting for permanent enclosure in cells often attached to churches.

Or, in our cases, a living room?

The last post I wrote was one written in a time of doubt, sadness, disappointment. In other words, last week.

The only thing that has changed from last week is that the restrictions for our state have tightened. Restaurants are closed to indoor dining again, gyms closed, and perhaps most painful of all, indoor gatherings with anyone other than who is living with you right now are prohibited through mid-December, to try and stem the tide of new Covid infections. Rates of infection are up. Families are separated again. Holed up. Hunkered in. I just told my stepdaughters not to come for Thanksgiving. And I hate that.

So why do I feel better today than last week, when things are looking even worse?

I have no freaking idea.

But the words written by the Middle Ages anchoress Julian of Norwich have started running quietly unbidden in my head, over and over…

“All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

So I looked her up, to find out why her words are in my head right now. Haven’t thought about her since I lost my ancient copy of Baker’s Lives of the Saints.

Apparently Julian, along with more than half of Europe, contracted the Black Death, the plague; unlike so many, she survived it. But in the middle of her illness, at the very moment of deepest sickness and despair, near to death, THAT’S when she received the visions of Christ that she wrote of, for the rest of her life. THAT was when she heard him say that all shall be well.

ALL SHALL BE WELL???

It’s the kind of ridiculous thing people say when they are beyond logic, splashing merrily about in the River of Denial. It’s what you think in delirium. Woo-hoo, pour me another gin and tonic, all shall be well. It’s unhinged. It’s potentially pathological. It’s the thing the Black Knight of Monty Python says – “It’s just a flesh wound!” MAYYYBE it will be well later. But now? In the middle of the disaster? I don’t think so. It’s silly. It’s irresponsible. It’s absurd. You smack someone saying that while the ship is sinking. “GET A GRIP!” If you would have heard that in your plague-induced fever, you certainly wouldn’t admit it once you’re past the whitewater, out of danger. You wouldn’t give it a second actual thought, right??

Unless of course it’s true.

Then it’s insane.

It’s even stranger when you think about the history of this woman. Again, Wikipedia says of her, “An important church ceremony would have taken place at the church, in the presence of the Bishop of Norwich. During the ceremony, psalms from the Office of the Dead would have been sung for her, as if it were her own funeral, and at some point Julian would have been led to her cell door and into the room beyond. The door would afterwards have been sealed up, and she would have remained in her cell for the rest of her life.”

Damn. Who does that level of crazy?

I am glad that I’m not feeling “the call” to become an anchoress. Don’t be singing no Office of the Dead for me, yet. As soon as they laid in the last brick in the wall, I’d be a hysterical hot mess.

But this quarantine thing….well. Not to compare, not to exaggerate, but sometimes, it feels like the bricks are stacked nearby…

I guess the calm I feel isn’t really mine, anymore than the words “all shall be well” were Julian’s. It’s safe to say I am not that mature, or that crazy. But Jesus apparently is. Jesus is insisting that all is still well. Right now.

So. What do I do with that?

I honestly don’t know. I doubt that I’m going to get some mystic vision like Julian, and the fact that she had it while having THE PLAGUE doesn’t inspire me to step up and volunteer. But it’s good to know that someone heard that, and had the wisdom to repeat it, to write it down. It doesn’t make sense, but it rings true. Go figure.

“All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Get up from your couch. Wrap your bathrobe around you. Put down the tumbler of wine. Use the peephole on your door. Look out there. Up and down, as far as the peephole allows. There are truths bigger than what we know out there. There is love beyond what we can feel out there. There is space and wind and power and joy that goes far past our horizon of sight. All manner of things beyond. And inside too, where we are. There too. Look.

All manner of things.

Shall.

Be.

Well.

Postscript. Apparently Julian had a cat for company. Wise girl.

Hang on.

Psalm 40:1-2 I waited patiently for the LORD to help me, and he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire. He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along.

Is it just me, or do you also feel a little conflicted about this? I mean, it’s great that the Lord heard the psalmist’s cry and lifted him out of the pit of despair and the mud and the mire – but wouldn’t it have been a whole lot better if the poor schmoe hadn’t fallen into the pit to begin with? I mean, would it have been so difficult for God to put up a big sign, “DON’T STEP HERE” or rope it off or fill it up or something? Couldn’t he have just changed the road to go past the giant pothole of doom?

I can’t say I am at perfect peace, waiting for the election results today. I can’t say I’m not depressed that the nation is so clearly divided and that this election is not going to solve that division, whichever way it goes in the next few days. I can’t say that I’m feeling confident and brave and focused and hopeful and holy.

Right now, I feel like the nation is in the pit, muddy and slimy and darkened and smelly and mired in conflict. I wish there had been a rope or a sign. But knowing us, we would have plopped down in the middle of this anyway, signs and barriers be damned.

So I have to choose to act on what I do not feel. I have to lay claim to what isn’t anywhere in my field of vision. I have to insist on what isn’t in any tweet or poll. In the pouring rain, I have to believe I risk a tan.

Christ will prevail. That’s what He said. And that means that this pit isn’t the final destination. But Christ’s timing isn’t mine. He waited until after all the flogging and the bleeding and nails-in-palms and suffering and dying were well invested in. He waited until after the spear in the side, after the funeral, to change the rules. The “ta-da” moment was long after the stone was set in place and everyone had gone home because there were just no more tears left to cry. He waited long after anyone had held out hope.

So it also means that until I feel the thunk of the fallen rope on my head and the upward tug after I’ve tied it to my waist, I have to be ready to tread the muddy water for a while longer. To hold my breath. To fight the chill on my soul. To hunt around in the muck, find the sticky, slimy hand of the others in here with me, and hold on effing TIGHT. So that we don’t lose each other in the dark. So that we don’t let go of who we are, as we wait for Him to give the signal. So that while we wait and sweat and weep and pray and stress eat and binge watch mindless television, we don’t let each other drown.

Keep the mud out of your mouth if you can. Breathe deep and slow. Stay near to each other. Resist the urge to flail, you’ll just sink deeper and smack me in the head on the way. Take turns crying and comforting. Take turns resting. Take turns looking up. For God’s sake, don’t look down. I need you. And I pray like hell that heaven won’t let me let you down, because you need me, too. I can’t promise I won’t be afraid, but I will be here for you, tears, fears, hopes, prayers, screams and all.

Hang on.

I know, RIGHT?!?!?

It’s Wednesday and I am looking in my Bible to find a list of passages addressing personal rights. Apparently they are the Big Thing these days. Rights to bear arms. Rights to wear or not wear a mask. Rights to protest. Rights to opinions. Right to be angry. Right to resent people being angry. Rights for free speech. Rights for defending property. Rights for self defence. Rights for cultural traditions being upheld. Rights to fly my flag and keep my statues. Rights for freedom of religion. And all of these, so far, seem to be about MY rights.

So biblically, which of MY rights do I have the right to insist upon, no matter what? If I am Christian, what is my right to claim?

Turns out only big one, really – and the others revolve around it.

Jonn 8:31-32 – So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

I can claim my right to be free because of the cross. That’s my right. And that’s IT.

All the other references to “rights” in the bible have nothing to do with MY rights, but the rights of others, and my responsibility to work for them. Oops.

Leviticus 25: my responsibility to insure the rights of others…the responsibility to insure the rights of the poor; the responsibility to give the land its own sabbath for renewal; the responsibility to share the harvest with my family and my neighbor and my servants and the poor; the responsibility to honor Jubilee with total freedom for all who have been indentured or enslaved. More – responsibilities to deal fairly, let your impoverished relatives move in, rent free, not charge excessive interest in loans.

Isaiah 1:16 – the responsibility to speak up for the orphan, the widow, the outsider, the ones with no voice of their own.

Jeremiah 22 – the responsibility to build your own prosperity without burdening anyone else unfairly; the responsibility to insist on fair governance for those most likely to be ignored or abused.

Luke 16 – the parable of the rich man and Lazarus; the responsibility to care for the poor.

Micah 6:8 – the responsibility to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly before God.

Matthew 6;33 – the responsibility to seek FIRST the kingdom of God and his version of rights, not ours.

1 Peter 2:13-17 – the responsibility to shift the culture from within by honoring what is just. “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” (italics mine.)

And what does Jesus himself say about our rights?

Matthew 5:12 – we have the right to rejoice in persecution and death if we are being persecuted for his sake and not for our own designs.

Matthew 5;44 – we have the right to pray for our enemies and love them, instead of being overwhelmed by hate.

Luke 11 – we have the right to call God our Father.

John 4:23 – we have the right to worship God in spirit and truth. (Nothing about a building, culture, or 501c3 tax exempt organization.)

John 15 – we have the right to call ourselves chosen.

John 8:31 – we have the right to be free in the love of Christ – IF we follow him and don’t take our own prisons of opinion and self-interest along for the ride.

So as far as I can see, if I’m looking to assert my own rights here, my rights are all in my own heart and nowhere else. But my responsibilities are everywhere, to all those that the Lord loves. And since the Lord IS love, well…….

My guess is that the more I assert my own rights, the more I am likely in my flawed human state to forget the rights of others. And since God has clearly told us to look out for others, that means…

I wear the mask.

I advocate for someone else whose prosperity might actually diminish my own. And if I win, and therefore I lose, I rejoice and do it again.

I silence my opinion in the life experience of others and trust that their truth is valid and worth listening to without push back or defensiveness. I shut up for love.

I put away the guns. I decide that defending myself can take a back seat if I can save this nation from its adoration of weaponry and self reliance. I risk the chance that if someone does evil to me or my loved ones, I will have to choose Jesus’ response to Peter and “put down the sword.”

I dump off my expertise on the world, how it should be run, and what it owes me.

I stop insisting on justice that executes people.

I let you be pissed off at me, and I listen to it with as much openness and commitment to justice and mercy as I can.

I choose to love and embrace the people who scare me, even as I fight against the evil that guides their actions. I look for the person that Jesus loves in the face of the one who hates me. (This scares me a lot, actually. Makes me want to go look for an Upper Room and hang out until the risen Lord shows up.)

I let myself feel the fear, the disappointment, the guilt, the confusion, the weakness, the pain of letting go of my concept of my rights, trusting that Jesus will replace all that stuff with his better stuff. Feeling shitty now, laying down the manure for the blooming of the kingdom later, in layman’s terms.

I have that right.

Corpus Christi

Fast_food_waste,_Victoria_street,_Blackpool_02I’m Catholic born and raised. So I know most of the major feast days of the saints, the major holy days of obligation, and the occasional random Thursday dedicated to the Eucharist.

Corpus Christi, meaning “Body of Christ” in Latin, is on the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday, which is 60 days after Easter. Corpus Christi is meant to celebrate the actual transformation of the bread and wine into the body of Christ during Mass, and is one of the bigger sticking points between Catholicism and most Reformed churches. 

With the current circumstances, I’ve been giving it a lot of thought and I am willing to say that the body of Christ in the Eucharist is probably just fine without celebration, but the body of Christ in the world is in serious need of lament and healing. The body of Christ in the world is broken, and not in the lovely metaphorical way a priest cracks the big wafer in two above his head. I mean seriously b-r-o-k-e-n.

So I’m not in the frame of mind to shout a nice loud hosannah for the feast of Corpus Christi today. The body of Christ is broken and wading waist deep in trash.

In my children’s choir, I spend a lot of time trying to teach 7, 8 and 9 year olds about caring for one another, and not just their friends. I try to teach a little “cause and effect” too, such as when we have snacks together and the floor starts to have more left over foodie parts than carpet visible underneath.

One of the rules of the choir is that, whenever we have snacks, the kids are required to pick up their own trash, then at least two pieces of trash on the floor that is not their own. At the beginning of the year, they balk. “Why should I have to pick up someone else’s trash? What if some of it was already here when I sat down? It’s not fair!”

But then I tell them, “Well, the trash might not be yours, but the floor is, and so is all the room. And it’s not fun to sing in a dirty place. So every one of us has to take care of it all the time the best we can so it can be ready for you when you come to sing.”

Once they get the logic of that, they usually try to one-up each other in picking up other people’s trash, and lickety-split, the floor is clean.

With this whole explosion of Black Lives Matter and the dismantling of White Supremacy, and all the other sub-phrases that go with it, there are a lot of people,  (let’s face it – white people) who don’t understand why reparations need to be made to this generation of people of color, especially since they don’t feel like their history intersects with it directly. “Why should I have to provide reparations? My family immigrated from Eastern Europe in the 20th century, we never had slaves and we were poor!” Or, “I have nothing against black people, and I never did anything on purpose to hurt them.  I don’t see why I have to be involved in this. It’s not my problem.”

I have had a hard time refuting that for the people I know personally who are loving, kind, generous and really unsettled with all the changes in our lives right now. I get it. I turn that thought over in my mind like a pebble myself. But it doesn’t really move us anywhere and we’re already uncomfortable here, so let’s move a little maybe and see what happens?

What if we simplified the vision and thought of ourselves as people who are just willing to pick up the trash we see? What if we put ourselves in the same room with 7, 8 and 9 year old kids trying to understand why it’s in their best interests to not only own and pick up their own trash, but pick up other people’s trash too?

Our history has built up much too much racist trash. We know that. In fact, history seems to show that we built a lot of the foundation with the trash as building material. But a foundation built with trash will not stay strong, so it’s no surprise it’s caving in. The trash needs digging out, new soil laid in, new solid foundation laid. We need a new floor to our classroom, and a lot of kids willing to pick up trash that kids long gone left for them to pick up, along with their own. Two pieces of someone else’s trash for every one piece of your own trash. And then we can sing.

How long would it take to convince us all that maybe it’s not fair but it’s more fair than letting the floor and the whole room go to rot?

Which brings me again to Corpus Christi. The body of Christ.

We are the body of Christ whether we like it or not. I don’t like thinking that the body of Christ is broken, because I try with all my might to take care of that left little toenail that I have been given charge to keep. The thought that parts of the body of Christ have been enslaved, impoverished,  imprisoned – well, it’s so painful and overwhelming that I just prefer not to think about it. But they don’t have that luxury. Not those other body parts.

But hey, if my little toenail is ok, isn’t that enough of a responsibility for me? If my little toenail is clean, does it matter that everything else is covered in sores? Can’t I just keep this little part safe? And if the right leg is broken, and the left leg has to carry more weight, am I willing to share that, or will I protest that too much pressure is being put on my little toenail? What if it hurts? Will I try to push that extra effort off to some other part of the foot, far away from me? And really, how much would my extra efforts make a difference anyway? Couldn’t the whole body just limp along without my having to change? Maybe it could…but is that enough to let me off the hook?

Ugh. I hate having these thoughts. I’d so much rather have a brownie and a nap.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not woke. I am not a brave protester, or a brilliant sociologist,  or a preacher, or a political influencer, or a voice of the people, any people. I am the current Keeper of A Toenail (well, actually, just the very tip – someone else with more smarts is in charge of the fleshy part.) I am one of the millions upon millions of the body of Christ who go along our merry way trying not to stub ourselves on the rocky world. I am wrestling with this just like everyone else, and probably not nearly as bravely or intelligently. But it’s where I am. And there is not a brownie within reach to distract me with yummy goodness.

I am wrapping my heart and mind around the idea that if the body is broken, it just needs mending and that’s all there is to it. And it should stand to reason that the parts that are needing healing shouldn’t be carrying the weight. Which means I should be carrying the weight – at least in part. Even over here in Left Toenail Land, it’s time to take on my share. Maybe more, if permitted. (Oh, I don’t like that idea. At. All.)

No one likes having sore armpits from their crutches when they break a leg, but they know that the arms have to take over if the leg is to rest enough to heal. And no one likes having stitches after surgery but they know that the incision was essential so that the doctor could reach and repair the internal wound. The arms ache so the leg mends. The skin is torn and pierced so the internal organs revive. A littler pain necessary to heal a bigger one.

I think maybe there are a lot of us that are the parts of the body of Christ that are not used to being stressed out so much. The armpits. The toes. The softer parts of the skin. But when injury happens, repair is essential. And so those less-stressed out parts are suddenly much more stressed out than they were meant to be. They get bruises and blisters and they really hurt. Which sucks, from their point of view, quite reasonably. But it needs to suck for awhile, for the body to mend.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just in my own little toenail world right now. But it feels like the  body of Christ needs some serious propping up, and if that means my toenail is gonna get dirty, I hope I can deal with that. I really pray I have what it takes to just do the next right thing. The next little toenail appropriate, body-healing thing.

Because the whole body, like the whole floor, is ours.

 

Nibbles

mouse-names-headerAnyone who has been anywhere other than under their covers in bed in the last week cannot help but to have been impacted somehow by the tumult. Protests, rioting, looting, more protests, Covid, church-front photo ops by the President, pundits, preachers and the public all speaking out. It’s been a deafening roar. It’s depressing, convicting, terrifying, agonizing, horrible, fearful, and sobering.

And hopeful. Very, very hopeful.

I remember living through the Watts riots in the late 1960s, and watching Martin Luther King on the news, both alive and post mortem. I remember the assassination of both Kennedys. I remember watching Rodney King saying, “Can’t we all just get along?” as the LA riots of the 1992 burst out with fire, bullets, tear gas. I remember the fury and division, the impassioned preaching of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. I remember  people saying, “This has to stop. The violence is wrong. The segregation is wrong. The police violence against people of color is wrong.” And I remember, as a child, my parents moving us from Watts where we lived to Bellflower, where it was more white, then again to La Mirada, where it was multiracial but a little more affluent. I remember them not talking about it much, because like so many people of good will but lack of understanding, they simply didn’t know what to say to us kids. They wanted us to be kind, and not be racist, but most of all, they just wanted us to be safe. And safety meant being quiet and moving to another neighborhood and putting the fear out of our minds until the next time.

What I don’t remember is a time when quite so many white people were willing to publicly admit their ignorance and underlying racism. I don’t remember a time when quite so many people of color said that the burden of educating one another about racism wasn’t supposed to be theirs. I don’t remember quite so many times of hearing the words “reparation” and “reconciliation.” I don’t remember hearing over and over again that it’s past time for uncomfortable conversations. I don’t remember so many people saying that we need to listen before we act. I don’t remember being personally embarrassed for my own ignorance and inability to speak up because I’m not even sure what the right words should be. I don’t remember having to talk about humility, about being wrong even when our intentions are good. I don’t remember having the uncomfortable ache in my soul saying that it’s time I get even more uncomfortable, and perhaps less safe, for the sake of others who have gone without safety and justice for far, far too long. I don’t remember staying in the hurt for quite so long.

I don’t remember it hurting so much.

And oddly enough, that gives me hope.

Because pain is, after all, a megaphone God can use to call us to repentance and change, to a willingness to fall down and ask for forgiveness and healing. You may be able to ignore the pain of others, but it’s usually impossible to ignore your own. And here lies the paradox of grace.

I’m not in the bubble anymore, five or thirteen or twenty miles away from the chaos. Moving to another house, another neighborhood is not going to work anymore.  I’m depressed, worried, angry, feeling convicted and underprepared. I don’t have answers. Which puts me in the right place to stand before God and say, “What do you want me to do?”

I don’t believe I am alone in this. And the more of us who are moving from being on the periphery to the uncomfortable middle of this problem, the better. Not being able to run away means having to listen more and talk less. It means learning new strategies, new ways of fighting the injustice staring our nation in the face. I feel like a white little church mouse, staring up at a dragon about to eat me whole without even a burp to give after I’m gone. But a dragon can’t eat every mouse in the world. There are a LOT of mice. Church mice, synagogue mice, mosque mice, Buddhist mice, atheist mice, unaffiliated mice. Enough mice, if they put their minds to it, to collectively eat a dragon whole.

I hate where we are. I hate the need for protests. I hate the evil that sneaks in and poisons the work of justice with sidelines of looting and riot. I hate the cynicism.  I hate the ridiculous posturing of left against right and right against left. I hate the stupid, divisive memes. I hate the desperation that has crippled the lives of millions of people of color throughout history. I hate the posing of politicians and the empty words. I hate how hard it is for acts of injustice to be seen for what they are, and how long it takes for our courts to respond.

But hope? That’s a thing I will not hate. I’m hanging onto that.

I am hopeful that this pain will be more than we are willing to pass along to our grandkids, more than we’re willing to put a bandage over and forget about yet again. I am hopeful that enough of us unaware privileged, “just trying to be nice because I don’t see color” white people like myself will begin to see ourselves for what we are – white mice, now improbably at the front of the line, with our tiny teeth and our querulous little bodies, finally willing to admit to seeing color, seeing inequity, seeing the monstrous dragon of racism we’ve ignored before, with the power to bring it down – if we are willing to move forward as one. Mice ready to devour the dragon once and for all.

One relentless nibble at a time.

 

Acts of Defiance

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Well, if you are anything like me, you are probably being overwhelmed with social media posts full of people participating in acts of defiance right now. People congregating on the lawns of their state capitols, holding their guns and signs, protesting for freedom from wearing masks or having to keep businesses closed. Other people protesting government and demanding that churches be opened, and their constitutional rights upheld. Still others protesting the protesters and demonizing them, even rejoicing when some fall ill or die. People taking Stands for their Important Rights that are being Unfairly Censored and Using capital Letters in the Middle of sentences for No Apparent Reason that I can Understand. Repost if you agree!

*sigh*

Defiance is a thing in American culture and always has been. We were birthed on it. We are the nation of rugged individuals. Our heroes are Rambo, Deadpool, Dirty Harry – anyone who can come out fighting after having been wronged by the guy in the black hat. That one guy who kicks ass all the time. That guy who takes ’em all out and stands tall at the end, middle finger raised high. Being American nowadays is about being the defiant rugged individual, ready to boldly take on the world and do it Our Way.

But defiance can be a trap. Righteous anger can be a drug, and there are a lot of people overdosing lately. You can die of it, and not even know.

The act of defiance can easily become the lens for how you view the world until you slowly go blind. I am seeing it taking over the lives of people in all walks of life, each one tweeting and filming and posting their respective battles against those with whom they are at odds. After a while, all they post is objections, warnings, insults, resentments re-posted and passed on to others for their outrage and disgust. The worst part is that somewhere along the line, their view of the world has become one based on fear. “We” must protect ourselves from”them” because “they” are evil/sinful/stupid/misguided…

And the world gets smaller and meaner with each post.

NO.

Not for me.

Here is my manifesto, my little flag in the wind, my act of defiance.

I will sing as often as possible. I will laugh. If I need to cry, I’ll do that, too, but not any more than I have to. I will hunt out the good in others like a pig roots for truffles and I won’t stop until I find it. I will take a moment and breathe before I decide what to say. Sometimes I will not say anything at all, and sometimes I will speak, but only if I can do it kindly and with love. I will listen for the fear and hurt behind the anger, and I will do my best to honor it. I will take my own anger and use it for something other than my own satisfaction. I won’t argue pointlessly; I can use the time better for making art, playing with the dog, encouraging the neighbors, praying. I will own my personal bag of emotional baggage and keep it where it should be – not hidden on a back shelf, but not spilled out all over the tarmac, either. I will say the name of Jesus without shoving it down other people’s throats. I will not pit my faith against theirs. I will choose what is inconvenient if it gives others the advantage they need to be their best. I’ll choose patience when what I really want to do is roll my eyes out loud. I will take the step back if someone else needs to move forward. I will release myself from being a white savior and just be a friend. I will not take myself too seriously, because, I mean, c’mon, it’s ME. I will wear washable clothes and comfortable underwear. I will use my upraised thumb more than my middle finger. When I use my middle finger, I will apologize and try to do better. I will keep my sense of humor clean and acceptable to old ladies and five year olds. I will admit when I am wrong. I will ask before I tell. I will pick the simple over the complicated.

I will choose hope when it looks stupid and joy when it appears pointless, because those are the times you need hope and joy most.

And I will always, always stop to pet the dog. ANY dog.

Defiance! Thumb UP!

 

 

Seek And You Shall Find

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When I was in fifth grade, I got sent to the principal’s office for being disrespectful. Since the principal of the school was a soft-hearted young nun with zero ability to threaten a butterfly, the real disciplinarian of the school was the principal’s assistant, who was also the school secretary.

And also my mother.

Mom was the school secretary from my first through eighth year of school at St. Bernard’s Parish School, and when I graduated from there and moved on to St. Joseph High School for Girls, she wound up being the school secretary over there, too.

But that’s another story for another time. Back to fifth grade.

When I slunk down to the office to report my transgression, I spent the walk muttering under my breath about the injustice of adult idiocy, the unfairness of having to wear uniforms that made us look like plaid potato sacks, and most of all, the complete ridiculousness of having to sit in alphabetical order. My last name was Schmitt, therefore I sat in row seven, seat eight, all the way at the back of the room by the pencil sharpener.

When I arrived at the office, my mother was surprised to see me. I am eternally grateful that, rather than immediately punishing me with detention for my sins, she asked what the teacher said I had done.

“I was reading,” I replied.

“How do you get sent to the office for reading?” she asked.

“Well,” I said, “when I want to see what’s on the blackboard, I close my left eye and read with my right, then when I want to write it down on my paper, I close my right eye and use my left to see the page. But stupid Mrs. Davison thinks I’m WINKING AT HER.”

There was a long silence. “You do…what?”

Then I explained what I had been doing since first grade, since every class in which we were seated alphabetically and I had developed this ingenious technique to remain an A student with a perfect record of deportment. No big deal.

And that’s how we found out I was a wonky eyed anomaly of nature, as oddly equipped as a chameleon. I was fitted with glasses for astigmatism with both nearsightedness and farsightedness – one in each eye.

I wish I could say that Mrs. Davison apologized, but she didn’t. I wish I could say I let it go and didn’t resent it a bit for the rest of the year, but I didn’t. From that day on, we were polite and respectful to each other, but I believe deep down we each distrusted the other with a barely perceptible hostility muted by Christian ethics.

Mrs. Davison was not the most popular teacher in school, but she was a good one. We actually kind of liked her, as teachers go. But of course, she daily had to deal with the budding hormones and irritable, annoying behavior of thirty-five 12 year olds, five days a week. She not only had to deal with disrespect, she actively began hunting for it like a heat seeking missile, to detonate it safely like unexploded ordnance – even when it wasn’t actually there.

Right now, in the middle of COVID 19 we are all out there, seeking our own things. Some are seeking innovative solutions, others merry distractions; still others seek pure scientific data. Some seek new ways to do familiar tasks. Some are looking for the big Truth with a capital T.  Some seek solace in the beauty of nature, the peacefulness of prayer, or the heartening resilience and kindness of humanity at its best.

And of course, there are those seeking confirmation, like Mrs. Davison, of their own fear of being disrespected, lied to, used as pawns in some complicated political plot. Seeking a way to say to themselves, “See? We were right. They ARE trying to screw us. They DON’T care.”

The thing is – I’m pretty sure that Mrs. Davison was a life lesson for me. For whatever reasons you have, what you seek really is what you will find. Even if you have to work very hard to make it up so you can finally see it. Even if it makes you feel terrible. Even if it isn’t true.

I guess my challenge to myself is this – what will I go looking for today? Do I want to go hunting for good news? Hopeful developments? Opportunities to make a difference, to fight off the feelings of jealousy and insignificance when I see my work compared to others? Do I want to give in to that insidious voice that says I’m being lied to, missing out on something critical, being played for a fool, about to be threatened by an unknown and indefensible foe?

Today I think I shall seek some carbs.

I don’t think Mrs. Davis consciously meant to go looking for bad behavior, but she did it every day anyway by habit. She was seeking confirmation of our lack of respect, to feed the fears she had about herself that made no sense to us, even as we made no sense to her. I understand better now, having faced my share of middle-schoolers, the fear can be real. But the threat rarely is.

Jesus was right when he said, “Seek and you shall find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

I think the trick is to know what you are seeking for, before you start walking through open doors.

 

The Very Stupid Raisin Story

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Today I am going to tell you my Very Stupid Raisin Story. It takes place when I am about 20 years old and am going to Cal State Fullerton University for a degree in Vocal Performance, which I am sure will make me millions of dollars and spread the fame of my extraordinary talents far and wide, as totally happened in Real Life. In a different universe which I am sure exists somewhere out there beyond this one.

Anyhow, I’m 20 years old and I’m carrying about 18 credits in eight classes and I have mountains of homework and hours of rehearsals and private voice lessons which are not part of the curriculum but must be paid separately. To help pay for that,  I have a part time job at the Broadway, a department store which no longer exists, and I spend most of my time there as a “contingent” (sub) in departments such as cosmetics, carpets and furniture – all departments in which salespeople earn commissions.  They resent my being there because I might actually make a sale, and rob them of their 2.5%. I earn $3.05 hourly before taxes and I work 20 hours a week, most of which nobody really appreciates.

I am a bit depressed.

Depressed because I am a faceless minion in the unwashed masses of music students all hoping to be The Discovered One. Because I am working my perky young ass off for professors who have the unique ability to ignore your best ideas while zeroing in with pinpoint accuracy on your errors, therefore insuring your humility as you do nine hours of homework for each class of which you have eight, and each one is by far the most important class you cannot possibly get less than an A for. Depressed because I work six days a week trying to NOT sell stuff while I go to school five days and all of them are around 12-14 hours long and nobody is satisfied with my best work while I am under the impression that this is completely normal and doable so my discomfort is just a weakness of will, talent or both.

So I am depressed. I am standing at the vending machines on the second floor of the music building, thinking that I will assuage my misery with a Mars bar, or a bag of Fritos. I reach into my purse and pull out….. twelve cents.

Now let me make this clear. I am not homeless. I live with my parents – while not optimal for a young person wanting to assert independence, it is nonetheless practical for a music student working a part time job. I give 30% of my income to the family, put 30% in a savings account and have 40% to do with whatever I like. I have dinners, most of the time, when I am not too tired to eat them after work at 10pm. I have a twin bed with Peanuts sheets. I share a car with my mother. So I am not impoverished. Just 20-something and broke.

But standing in front of a vending machine with twelve cents in your pocket is a bit of a bummer.

So I sit down on one of the little plastic chairs scattered there in the hallway and have myself a good long existential crisis. I heroically and stalwartly bemoan my fate. I move from feeling like a downtrodden peasant to an ill-treated princess in exile, and am just about to swing into full blown Unappreciated Impoverished Genius when I hear a whirr and a click and a thump. I stand up to investigate.

One of the vending machines has spontaneously disgorged the contents of C13.

A tiny box of Sunmaid raisins.

The only thing in the entire vending machine that isn’t empty calories and fat, which was what I really wanted anyway, having overlooked the raisins completely in my quest for crappy, sugar-loaded food.

So I take the box of raisins, and I sit down again and as I eat them I feel increasingly….. dumb. And grateful.

Would I have died for lack of raisins? No. Did the Miracle of the Raisin Box restore my faith in myself and humanity? No. Was it a gesture of magnificence that I will tell my grandchildren so that the story will inspire generations to come? Probably not.

It’s a stupid story about raisins.

But it’s also a story about small things mattering. Because even though it didn’t save my life, it did remind me that my life still has humor and wonder and serendipity in it. That there are moments that are small and inconsequential and no less remarkable for being that. Someone, God or the universe or the smaller gods of vending machines, took pity upon my self pity and dropped me some raisins. “Here, ” the universe said, “Get over yourself. I still care.”

Sometimes when you feel really small and stupid and overlooked, something small and stupid and easily overlooked can make you feel much, much better. That you are at the  right place at the right time for the small, but right reason.

I guess I’m telling this story now because we’re in the strangest of times. Some people fighting for their lives, others being heroes saving lives. Some being horrible villains that you can’t help but argue about and shake your fists at. Others creating magical moments of connection, or raising thousands of dollars or creating spectacular works of art that point to the glory of humanity at its best. And a lot of us, the others, the rest, sitting around and thinking, “What the hell have I got to contribute to this? What’s my part in the story?”

Feeling a bit like sideliners. Benched. Of no matter. Small, stupid and easily overlooked.

Would it be silly to say we are all like tiny boxes of raisins? We folks who contribute a few dollars to a non-profit, or drop off some groceries, or make a phone call. We who paint rocks or draw with sidewalk chalk or drive by someone’s house and honk. We who pray in our rooms where nobody sees. We who wear masks in the grocery aisle and try to smile with our eyes, knowing it’s very likely nobody can actually see that. Is it worth it?  Does it even count? Why bother? Are we just wasting time?

I think it does count. It is worth it, and worth the bother. Because I also think maybe we are all metaphorically speaking, tiny boxes of raisins. Small and inconsequential, but perfectly timed. It makes me feel a little better to think of it that way. After all, when we can only do what we can do, it’s very easy to believe it’s not Enough. I am not the coveted Fritos. Not the yummy yummy Mars bar. I’m not Essential. I’m not heroically suffering for the good of the world.  There’s no statue being erected to sidewalk chalk draw-ers. I paint rocks and leave them out for the neighborhood; when they disappear I am not sure they’ve been taken as treasure or simply tossed out as trash. There’s nothing grand about any of it. I’m throwing pebbles on a beach. Maybe not even pebbles, maybe grains of sand. I’m not heroically being ignored for all my heroic activities for the good of the blah blah blah blaaaaaaaaaaaaah. <quietly stepping down from soapbox>

It’s easy to get a little twinge of jealousy, or resentment or hopelessness. I know I do, all the time.  Because I’m a bit of a twit. But I’m still a fully present, possibly useful someday twit.

If you feel anything like me – and why would you? You are a much better human being – it’s entirely possible that, at any moment, even right this moment, your life may be the whirr, click, thump that turns someone’s head around to make them look. To help them see.

And to feed them, just a little bit, with sweetness and good simple nourishment, in a tiny single-serving size. C13 isn’t much, but it isn’t empty either.

Long live the raisins!

Whenever I Die

quote-cowards-die-many-times-a-brave-man-dies-but-once-william-shakespeare-133-71-63The first time I remember thinking about something “ending” me was when I was quite young and my mother had put to bed; directly above me, I noticed a large crack in the ceiling. I remember laying there, feeling helpless and sure sure that it was just waiting until dark, so it could open up and quietly swallow me whole. I remember most of all feeling not quite fear, but deep sadness and resignation that my mother would come in the next morning and not ever know where I had gone.

The truly strange thing about this memory for me is the likely age of my life when it would have happened. I told this memory to my mother as an adult and she remarked that there was in fact a cracked ceiling above my bed, but only when we lived in Pennsylvania; we lived there for the first six months of my life, and then we moved to California. The crack was above my crib. It’s hard to believe that I remember anything at all from the first six months of my life, let alone a concept as complex as dying or nonexistence, but there it is. It’s a sobering idea to suggest that someone under a year of age can have these thoughts unspoken – perhaps we all do. I can’t explain the memory any other way.

I suppose that would be the first recollection I have of death. The next clear memory is from when I was in third grade. A second grader at our school had played in a railroad yard, accidentally fallen into a grain car, and suffocated. Because I went to a Catholic elementary school, the funeral was during school hours and the entire school walked up single file, grade by grade, child by child, to pass the open coffin and give silent condolences to the family.

I remember standing in the church aisle looking down at my scuffed white oxfords, being afraid of what I would see when I looked up; then I remember the strangeness of seeing his familiar face so calm, so close and still, as intimate as though he was sleeping. If I close my eyes, I can still see him, fifty years later, blonde lashes, auburn hair against the white satin. I remember his freckles and the way his hair was slicked back in a way he never wore it in life. To find myself at age eight, facing him six inches away and not being frightened after all was probably the most astonishing part that cemented it to memory.

I have, of course, seen death since. My grandparents, my parents, a friend or two, my pets, coworkers, neighbors, parishioners. Car accidents that I’ve lived through, astonished for being so little damaged myself in a totaled car. Circumstances in which, had I been there a few minutes earlier or later, I would not be writing now. I’ve sung at many a funeral and listened to my fair share of eulogies; even delivered a few myself. I know I will see it again in the future.

But it is not too often that I think deeply about my own ending. Still, there have been many practice runs, many endings. Many final stops that sometimes left me gasping for air. The ending of my childhood. The sputtering out of my operatic career. The first time I realized my love was not returned. The hysterectomy that closed the door to motherhood forever. The loss of a friendship. Moving away. Letting go of expectations and dreams. The gradual departure of the bloom of youth, that now I recreate with rouge. All endings, a sort of shadowy death, none of them any the less permanent even though I still breathe.

The truly strange thing after all these is that, like the first encounter, once I looked clearly face to face, none of them was frightening. Sad sometimes. Sometimes, a painful relief. Confusing. Humbling. Sometimes with tears, sometimes just a quiet sort of resignation. A few times, a blessing I couldn’t recognize until much later.

But not frightening. At least, not once I got up close.

I guess I’m thinking about this today because of Covid-19.  Because the economy has taken such a huge hit. Because of the daily numbers of the sick and the dead. Because of the people on my prayer list. Because of the food banks. Because of the dreams I have been having about being lost in a huge city with streets and buildings that move all by themselves, or the other dreams about old people who fit into matchstick boxes and then die and leave behind them small mounds of dust, in which are hidden brooches and necklaces with rubies and diamonds. Because of the nights when it is 1:30 am and I lay looking at a ceiling with no cracks, knowing those dreams are still hours away.

Am I confused? Clearly. Am I at a loss? Isn’t everyone? Am I saddened? Of course. Am I out of my league? Probably. Am I afraid?

No.

Yet the world tells me that I am afraid. That I should be, if I am not. The mainstream news and the alternate news, blasting the mainstream news. Internet articles. Memes. Protests and counter protests. Monstrous, hateful strings on Facebook in which one side angrily refutes the logic of the other, because of fear. We tell each other in our own terror not to be afraid, yelling it at each other like a command that must be but can’t be obeyed.

I think it is because we are not close enough yet. I am not talking about eliminating the six-foot rule of social distancing. I am not talking about going about unmasked.

At least not the fabric masks.

As long as we can hold each other at a distance our hearts won’t reach, we’ll be afraid. As long as we can keep our favorite masks on, the ones that make us look competent, assured and accomplished, we’ll be afraid. Or the masks that make us acceptable to others, the ones we are forced by others to wear. Or still other masks of anger and impatience, which we often insist on seeing and speaking through despite ourselves. Those are the particularly painful ones that leave lasting marks, especially around the eyes.

As long as we insist on reviewing all the options before we allow ourselves the dangerous privilege of vulnerability, we’ll be afraid. As long as we can close our ears and look the other way, we’ll be afraid. As long as there are clear lines between “them” and “us” we will be afraid, and death will come just the same.

Because death crosses the lines all the time. Death is an equalizer, unalterably fair in its impartiality. It looks us each in the eye and demands our honest surrender. No quarter given. While it comes in infinite variety, it is reliably consistent to everyone. Everyone loses something sometime. Everyone has to say goodbye to what was, and everyone has endured endings. Everyone – often many times throughout their life – dies. The one time I think Shakespeare really missed the mark was when he wrote, “A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once.” I disagree. The bravest soul, I believe, is one willing to die as many times as it takes to keep on growing into a real honest-to-god human being.

Maybe if we sat with our own particular death a little while, in whatever guise it chooses for the day, we would come to learn that. Maybe we’d be more patient with each other because we could be more patient with ourselves. Less likely to point fingers, less likely to disassociate and condemn. Less afraid to listen. Less afraid to see. Less afraid to connect.

Just less afraid.

If we embraced the deaths in our lives, deaths that put us on new paths, challenge our old perceptions, deaths that pry our fingers off our most precious possessions and require us to hold them again more lightly, deaths that force us to redefine ourselves – maybe we’d each and collectively be just a little bit more…alive. Maybe.

Maybe it’s worth a try.

 

I Don’t Want To…

kimberly-clark-kleenex-facial-tissue-tissues-white-box-of-48-model-21606When my paternal grandfather passed away at age 82, I was 13. I remember my father in tears and my parents’ friends coming around after the funeral to tell us how sorry they were. Everyone was so kind and consoling. Gentle. Heartfelt. Wanting to be close and comforting. Even my classmates and teachers were so very kind. So kind.

And I really, really hated it.

My paternal grandfather was not your typical kindly old grandpa. He smoked and drank and swore. He hadn’t been a loving father to his sons and he wasn’t kind to my mother. He prided himself on being irascible, and not in a cute way. While he had been an integral part of my brothers’ lives, I came along much later and his interest in grandchildren had waned to zero. He could be obtuse and selfish. He was demanding and rough. His death wasn’t all that hard on me. But it was on the rest of the family.

When he died, the primary emotion I felt was rage. Rage that his loss had wounded my father and brothers, rage that we were inundated with attention and had no privacy, rage that we were now completely caught up in funeral arrangements and in dealing with his grieving widow, my step-grandmother who was equally if not more obtuse and selfish as he had been. Rage at the gentle acceptance of my mother, who handled the casseroles and the flowers and the family with equal grace. Rage at my own sense of not caring.

One of my classmates told me that she was sorry, and I replied, “Why? You didn’t do anything. Besides, it’s no big deal. Everybody dies.” I deflected every kind word, every gesture, every somber expression. I threw out sympathy cards as quickly as they came in. I was having none of it. How dare these people want to walk alongside me? Did they think they had the right to see me at my weakest? I wasn’t about to lean on anyone and I resented their expectation that I would. I didn’t need to. I didn’t want to. I stood apart, and I liked it that way. Everyone to their own private feelings, and no sharing, thank you very much.

Now I realize that my anger was a very effective way to remove myself from having to enter into the grief of my family. It protected me from feeling empathy that would have made me feel, truly feel the fear of watching my parents in pain, or having to admit that I was overwhelmed, afraid and powerless. It kept me from the confusion that comes when you don’t feel the same as everyone else. Instead of choosing to feel grief and allowing others to try and comfort me, I closed up my heart like a soldier about to go to battle, and emotion was my enemy. I was proud of my strength. I had a shield of anger that would hold back the kindest words and the deepest doubts.

I think Facebook is a great place to wield this shield of the heart now in this time of pandemic. If someone posts a video of medical personnel who are exhausted beyond measure and desperate for rest, it’s easier to refute them as being overly dramatic pawns of the lefties. No need to feel sorry – arrow deflected! If there’s a video of people protesting for reopening businesses, we can focus on the people holding “I want a haircut” signs so that we don’t have to think too much about the people out of frame who are terrified of their jobs being lost permanently. No need to feel guilt if you are still employed – pang of guilt bounced right off! I have read long strings of rebuttals, arguments, excuses, rants, finger-pointing and insults. Sometimes I participate. So many shields. Ping. Pow. Zing! So much ricochet. So few actual moments of connection. So many words for so much isolation.

What I have found in myself now is that 13 year old girl is still alive and angry. I don;t want her on my Facebook posts, but she lingers just off the screen, daring me to write her words. The mature part of me looks for ways to help, to learn, to listen; but she is not about to be silenced, and she has a lot to say about refusing to feel. By God, we are not going to let our guard down! Screw that! I know my rights! You are wrong! I think I am not alone in this…

In John 11:35, as Jesus stands outside the tomb of Lazarus, about to raise him up, Jesus does something that has always made me angry. He weeps.

As a child, it was completely incomprehensible. He knows he’s about to resurrect his friend, and that he has the power to make this whole terrible tragedy do a 180. So why the tears? As an adult, it infuriates me because I feel so convicted – he takes the time to empathize with the mourners, to fully enter into and share their grief. To feel the pain himself, without self protection or shame. To let his guard down completely and let someone else put an arm around him. To feel the wrath of Martha. To bear it with them. To be without words. To weep.

To let it be what it is – real.

He makes it look so easy. It’s not.  I can sit with a grieving friend, and give support and love. And yes, I can feel with them and sincerely enter into their pain. For an hour, a day, maybe even a whole week. I can do that. I can even sense when they are getting angry, as I have been so many times during loss. I can put myself in their shoes. But it’s exhausting. And it’s even more exhausting to be on the receiving end of care and grace.

There is a point when I feel myself like the apostles at Gethsemane, drifting off. Falling asleep. Running away. My heart gets too heavy. I get compassion fatigue. I get itchy. I start looking for solutions. Distractions. Reasons. Plans A, B, C and D on how to handle it. How to get rid of it. How to forget. Minimize. How to change the channel. How to make it stop. How to make it just go away.

There is a prayer I say sometimes when I feel brave and so very stupid: “Jesus, break my heart for what breaks yours.” I would love to be spiritually mature enough to really mean it. But for now, I know deep down I’m usually much more scared he might take me up on it.  I know that if I opened my heart just a tiiiiiiny bit more and prayed that he allow me to share that kind of suffering as a way of living for others more completely, he might actually honor the words and then I’d be stuck having to have a true heart of Christ, and there would be spiritual blood all over the place and no cleaning materials handy and who the hell really is ready for that?

Because to have that kind of heart that really breaks for others, you have to be right there with them in their powerlessness. You have to not have the answers, no nice bow to tie it up. You have to sit with the mess and not reach for a broom. You have to be willing to have empty hands. You have to sit in the dirt and know you are not getting cleaned up spiffy anytime soon. And hardest of all, you have to be willing to remember this vulnerability next time around and do it again.

And again. And again.

I don’t think I have that in me quite yet.

So right now, the best I can do is to want to want a heart that breaks for what breaks His. It’s a start. A very small one and I am not too proud of it.

Jesus wept. I didn’t.

But I want to.

Not really.

Sort of.