Resurrection Stories 2: Presence

storytree

As my Lenten discipline this year, I’m working on a project. As part of that project, I’m thinking about resurrection. Yes, about Christ’s, but more about ours. Yours, and mine.

So, while I think about my own resurrection stories, I’m also asking for yours. I made some posters and shared them at my church, at the dance studio, and on the web, thinking this was a straightforward way to ask for what I want:

Think about your experience. How has Christ come alive in you? How have you gotten up out of the grave? What was it like inside there? What does resurrection look, taste, feel, smell, and sound like for you?
Decide how to represent your story on paper: written narrative, illustration, symbol, quote from Scripture, literature, song, etc.
Use the paper I’ve provided. Put your story on it. Or you can e-mail me your story at Lennon.KAC@gmail.com

For the first week, silence was the only response I got. That’s a good answer, actually. What is it like inside the grave? Silent. How do I feel inside there? Unheard. Ignored.

But, last Thursday I got my first story! I was at the dance studio. Normally when my last class finishes at 9pm, I race home. But this time, I felt like taking it slow. I stretched, I changed my clothes. I passed through the lobby, where Marjorie, mother of an advanced student and a fixture in the lobby, and two students sat quietly. Marjorie glanced up at me with her bright, open face, then looked back down. I peeked into the studios, looking for a fellow teacher to chat with, but everyone seemed engaged. Back in the lobby, I milled around a minute, then I checked the box I’d set up for people to submit their resurrection stories. Empty. I could feel Marjorie’s eyes following me. I gathered my things and decided to go.

Marjorie stopped me at the door. She asked me about the project. She had read the poster but wondered why I was asking for stories? How did I come up with the idea?

I was caught off guard! I was supposed to be the one asking the questions, looking for answers, and here was a famous gold medalist in endurance elocution asking me to speak, and pausing long enough for me to do so! Since I was caught off guard, I didn’t go into my prepared explanation, tripping into unrehearsed honesty instead.

I told her of a sermon I heard, about a year ago, and how I felt challenged by it. The sermon dealt with the gospel account of Thomas encountering the risen Christ (John 20:24-29). So often when I read that gospel passage, I identify with Thomas. I focus on my doubts and disbelief. I lock myself in, I shut others out. I make demands and set unattainable expectations. But the speaker in the sermon suggests a reversal: try on the role of Christ. How have I bled and died and risen again? What does resurrection mean? Not hypothetically or theologically. But tangibly, physically.

I want to spend some time answering the question, and I want to engage others in the process. I want to connect with people through storytelling. I want to share stories and share in stories.

Marjorie listened intently, enthusiastically, her eyes as bright and open as ever. She did not disappoint, instantly launching into a story.

She lost her mother when she was 11 years old. The doctors said her mother would have 6 months to live, but she only made it 6 weeks. As a child, Marjorie made sense of it this way:

If my mom was still here, she would be in unbearable pain. She wouldn’t be the mom I knew and loved. She’d be suffering. Death was just a part of God’s plan for her, and I was glad to have enough time with her, to experience Christ’s love through her while she was alive. I missed her, particularly for the big life milestones. It was hard for me to make sense of it as time went on. But it’s not my job to understand. It’s for me to have faith. I believe that she is with God, and so if God was with me when I graduated, for example, then my mother was, too. She was with me all the time.

When she was a kid, she tried explaining these thoughts to a woman at her church. The woman criticized her for making peace with her mother’s death this way, by reasoning that her mother was better off, free from pain. This woman equated that line of thinking with wishing her mother were dead. I imagine an 11-yr-old Marjorie, standing there in a church, holding out her wounded hands and lifting her arm to show her pierced side to this woman: a real-life Thomas, not able or willing to see resurrection when it’s right in front of her.

In the sermon (click that link and listen to it, already!), the speaker elaborates on the fact that Jesus appeared with Thomas and the disciples without having to open the barred doors, suggesting the primary characteristic of resurrection is that its presence “doesn’t swing on the hinge of a door.”

I imagine, for young Marjorie, the grave felt isolated, alone, abandoned. Motherless. It feels that way for me, too, and maybe for most of us. My granny lost her father when she was two. My dad lost his father at age three. The priest giving the sermon lost her mother at the same age. And other friends, like myself, had parents who, though alive, enforced physical and emotional distances.

We know our parents as absent. We know ourselves as lacking. We lock ourselves in and bar the doors, daring anyone to break through, to prove us wrong. “Unless I see, unless I touch, I will never believe.” If we test and trap others long enough, we can justify our giving up. It’s just not worth the effort, we finally say. Everyone abandons me, sooner or later. Everyone rejects me, given enough time.

How easy it is to sit back in the tomb, shrouding ourselves in isolation and abandonment. And how wonderful and marvelous it is, by contrast, for little 11-yr-old Marjorie to take off the shroud, and to walk out of the tomb into freedom, openness, and presence. Leaving the tomb didn’t erase her wounds, didn’t negate her loss or change the fact that she needed her mother to be physically present at times. She still bears the wounds of her loss, she still misses her mother to this day. But she chooses to live under the belief that love and presence transcend physical absence. She chooses to live again, milestone after milestone, moment after moment, day after day.

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

– e. e. cummings

Look and See

img_20170128_100220 The picture on the left may look like an oily smudge on a stone path, and that’s precisely what it is.

I’m part of the Altar Guild at an Episcopal church, which means I prepare for and clean up after Holy Eucharist, mostly, and I take care of other liturgical chores. The chores themselves, and the details of how they’re performed, have meaning behind them. Like this little smudge.

One duty specific to my team is to change out the oil stock. This is a tiny screw-top vessel, less than an inch in height and diameter, containing half a cotton ball moistened with Oil of Intinction (from the Latin for “dip.”) When a person comes to church seeking prayer or healing, the priest dips her finger into the oil stock and makes the sign of a cross on the person’s head as she prays. Once a month, I take out the old cotton ball, carry it outside to the memorial garden, set it on the stone path, and burn it. I stand there with it until it has completely burned out, and all that’s left is a grease spot on the stone. This is one of my favorite duties on the Altar Guild.

This past Saturday, I was standing there in the cold January wind, watching the oil burn. The distinct scents of the cold air, the of the smoke rising from the ground, and the asphalt from the road just beyond the trees combined and took me back to a memory. Smell memories are the strongest, for me. A little jarring, actually.

Long ago, one winter during the holidays, when my younger sister and I were both in high school, we had a ritual of sneaking down to the cul-de-sac with my chocolate-scented candle and a bag of marshmallows. We would sit right on the asphalt, roasting the marshmallows over the candle’s tiny flame. The candle made an oily, artificially-sweetened smell when it burned, and the marshmallows would absorb some of that slightly-off quality so that we could taste it, too. It was hard to roast the marshmallows evenly this way, of course. I remember thinking, “How is this considered food?” Something so artificial, all sickly sweetness and air, mostly. They filled our mouths with emptiness. The bitterness of the blackened bites offered a welcome contrast.

My sister and I would sit there, dreaming about running away from home to Spain, to start a bakery together. I had recently traveled to Spain with the Spanish Honor’s Society at school, and the highlight of my trip was the convent. The nuns in this convent had taken vows of never looking upon the outside world. They stayed inside the convent, ancient and made of wood, with no glass, no windows, where they made and sold delicious cookies. Transactions were executed through a wooden lazy Susan with a small opening. You could speak to the nun to place your order, and she could speak to give you your total. You’d place the money on the lazy Susan, and the nun would turn it around, cookies appearing where your coins had been. An entire community, isolated and insulated within a major city. Present but unseen.

After a while of holding vigil together, sharing our misery and isolation, my sister and I would get too cold and sneak back inside. Though we didn’t have to sneak, really. We were in the middle of a suburban cul-de-sac, surrounded by houses with dark windows. (What’s the opposite of “The lights are on but nobody’s home?”). No one was looking for us.

Since being confronted with this memory last Saturday, others have popped up as well.

I remember a home video of myself, on my 3rd birthday or so. Wearing a beautiful hand-smocked dress by my mother, I stood alone in the middle of the living room floor. My parents and grandparents were off screen, sitting on the couches, all eyes looking at me. No one laughed or played with me. No one reached out for me. My grandmothers kept asking me to sing and dance for them, which I did not want to do. In my discomfort, I kept pulling up on my dress. My mother kept scolding me to put it back down.

I remember sitting at the dinner table, about 5 years old. My dad was at the head, and I was at the foot in my booster seat. I bobbed my head side to side in a playful way, smiling at my dad, wanting him to see me and smile back. He looked at me from across the table, scowling for a few moments, and finally told me to stop doing that and eat.

When in was in first grade, I had a recurring dream: I was naked and alone, in a prison made of glass. People would walk by and look at me. In the dream, I felt very uncomfortable and I did not like it, though I understood this was what I was told to do, because the people liked to look at me.

When my younger sister and I were both in elementary school, we would play Anne Frank together. We sat on the old, frayed couch in the playroom, with odds and ends gathered around us—plastic dishes, food stolen from the pantry, blankets—and pretended we were in hiding. If anyone walked by, we hid under the blankets and held our breath until they were gone. In hindsight, it was a morbid thing to play, but I was drawn to the experience of being hidden plain sight. Looked for, but not seen.

When I was in high school, in the years leading up to the cul-de-sac vigils, my parents started eating nearly every meal in front of the TV. Even on weekends. My dad went on the Atkins diet, so my mom became inspired by new ways of cooking. That was good for her. She was so proud of him, and praised him for his improved health. That was good for him. She would make Sunday dinner out of the Atkins cookbook—meat and greens. She and my dad would make their plates in the kitchen and park in front of the TV, isolated and insulated on the double-wide recliner. My siblings and I would wander around the house, a multi-story house with an open floor plan. Passing from our rooms, through the tv room, to the kitchen. Present but unseen. Hidden in plain sight.

My mom, like nearly all moms, had some famous catch-phrases: “I didn’t ask what you wanted!” and “You can’t have it, so stop wanting it!”

I developed an eating disorder. In about 8 months, I lost 25 pounds. I felt invisible, trapped, constricted, starved. Filled up with emptiness.

During that time, I don’t remember my mother speaking to me. My dad gave me more attention than he ever had in the past, or has since. He took me out for coffee for the first and only time. It felt artificial and man-made. He did all the talking, as usual. He looked at me across the table and lectured me about what he thought my problem was. He took me on a daddy-daughter retreat for the first and only time. Other dads took pictures of their beautiful daughters in the hotel lobby one night. My dad asked to take my picture, too. I’m sure he had good intentions. He probably wanted to prove that looks don’t matter. He wanted me to think he loved me no matter what I looked like. I obliged silently. But I didn’t want to be looked at. I wanted to be seen.

Soon after the retreat, he took my older sister to a fancy restaurant. He had taken her there before. Uncharacteristically bold, maybe because of the much-needed attention I was getting, I asked my dad if he would take me out to the same restaurant. He scoffed, “You wouldn’t eat anything.” You can’t have my love, so stop wanting it.

A year or so after I had recovered, my dad bought me a book. Dare to Desire, by John Eldridge. The irony apparently flew right over my dad’s head. I never opened the book. I assumed it was just some feel-good mumbo-jumbo with no basis in reality. My bitterness offset his artificial sweetness.

By the time I was a senior, my desire to run away from home was unbearable. It was a constant refrain in my mind. My sister and I would just look at each other and say, “Spain.” I was finding subtle ways to run away without actually packing my bags. I found a friendly math teacher who let me stay in his classroom even after he’d left for the day. I would sit there on the industrial carpet, doing homework and watching C-SPAN, long past dark. The janitorial staff would come in to empty the trash. We had a silent understanding. I stared at them until they were gone, and they pretended not to see me. When I got home, the house was dark, everyone else already closed in their rooms. No one greeted me.

. . .

When my sister and I held our cul-de-sac vigils, we never said out loud how miserable we were, but we both knew. We talked a little about Spain and cookies, we heaved heavy sighs, but mostly we sat silent. Side by side, hovering over the tiny flame, we gazed outward together, rather than at each other. Seeing without looking.

I think that’s why I find meaning in burning the oil stock each month. When I take the cotton ball out of its tiny jar, the size of a marshmallow, it looks matted down, felted from being rubbed again and again. These people dared to desire, dared to speak their request out loud, and dared to ask again and again.

I wonder if they feel alone, forgotten, or unseen.

The Reverend Steven Charleston often shares blessings and encouragement on Facebook. Once he posted something about not being alone. You are seen, he insisted in the most poetic way possible. At the time, I thought it sounded unrealistically good. Too sweet to be natural. I am embarrassed to admit I commented, “If only it were true.”

But what I am living proof? What if I am one who sees? When I look at the oil stock, I see more than just oil. The desires, struggles, fears, hopes, and requests themselves are hidden from me, along with the faces and voices that made them. I can’t look at them, but I see. I see the evidence in the form of a tiny oily cotton ball. I hold it, I carry it, I place it on the path. I turn it into an offering. And I sit with it in silent vigil until it has been transformed.

I see you. And I thank you for allowing me the opportunity.

Still Standing

The following is an excerpt from the audiobook version of Tattoos on the Heart: Stories of Boundless Compassion by Fr. Gregory Boyle, SJ, leader of Homeboy Industries. Boyle (referred to as “G”) has worked with gang members in LA for over 20 years. This excerpt was transcribed and abridged by yours truly, and is shared without permission. I hope Fr. Boyle will forgive me. I highly recommend that you purchase this audiobook for yourself. – Doe


CHAPTER 8: SUCCESS

People want me to tell them success stories. I understand this. They are the stories you want to tell, after all. So why does my scalp tighten when I am asked this? Surely part of it comes from my being utterly convinced I’m a fraud. I find Bill Cain’s reflection on the Shroud of Turin very consoling. He prefers frauds. He says, “If the shroud is a fraud, then it is this masterful work of art. If it’s the real thing, it’s just dirty laundry.”

Twenty years of this work has taught me that God has greater comfort with inverting categories than I do. What is success, and what is failure? What is good and what is bad? Setback or progress? Great stock these days, especially in non-profits (and who can blame them), is placed in evidence-based outcomes. People, funders in particular, want to know if what you do works. Are you, in the end, successful? Naturally, I find myself heartened by Mother Theresa’s take: we are not called to be successful, but faithful.

This distinction is helpful for me as I barricade myself against the daily dread of setback. You need protection from the daily ebb and flow of three steps forward, five steps backward. You trip over disappointment and recalcitrance every day, and it all becomes a muddle. God intends it to be, I think. For once you choose to hang out with folks who carry more burden than they can bear, all bets seem to be off. Salivating for success keeps you from being faithful, keeps you from truly seeing whoever is sitting in front of you. Embracing a strategy and an approach you can believe in is sometimes the best you can do on any given day. If you surrender your need for results and outcomes, success becomes God’s business. I find it hard enough to just be faithful.

[Story of Scrappy’s death: Scrappy was an extremely aggressive and uncompromising gang member who pulled a gun on Fr. Boyle on one occasion. But finally, he admitted he regretted the reputation he had spent 20 years building, and wanted a new life. Fr. Boyle gave him a job on a graffiti removal team. Soon after, Scrappy was found dead from a clean, execution-style shot to the head. No one knows exactly what happened, but Fr. Boyle speculates…]

Maybe something caught up with Scrappy. Maybe his past, maybe his recent present. Perhaps the prospect of leading a life devoid of reputation, by the rules, and by the slow pace of the right thing, was more terrifying than exhilarating for Scrappy… Quite apart from the tragic blow of Scrappy’s death for all of us who loved him, was the heartbreaking fact that he missed his chance to live in another way. Like a child, thrilled but terrified by his first swim in the ocean—floating, carried, restful, because he was moving in a completely different way—perhaps the new scene, its strangeness, its immensity, had scared him back into the life he knew.

Was he a success story? Does he now appear in some column of failure as we tally up outcomes? The tyranny of success often can’t be bothered with complexity. The toke board matters little when held up alongside Scrappy’s intricate, tragic struggle to figure out who he was in the world.

[Story of Raul’s death: another gang member who gave up his old life, but was shot while on the clock for Homeboy Industries.]

[Story of Victor’s death, after which Fr. Boyle was comforted by an infamously surly gang member with a violent temper. On this occasion, the man sobs with G in his office, expressing his wish that he could “swoop [G] up” and out of his pain.]

Sister Elaine Roulette, founder of My Mother’s House in New York, was asked, “How do you work with the poor?”

She answered, “You don’t. You share your life with the poor.” It’s as basic as crying together. It’s about casting your lot before it ever becomes about changing their lot. Success and failure ultimately have little to do with living the Gospel. Jesus just stood with the outcasts until they were welcomed, or until he was crucified, whichever came first.

The American poet Jack Gilbert writes, “The pregnant heart is driven to hopes that are the wrong size for this world.” The strategy and stance of Jesus was consistent in that it was always out of step with the world. Jesus defied all the categories upon which the world insisted: good/evil, success/failure, pure/impure. Surely, he was an equal opportunity pisser-offer in this regard. The Right wing would stare at him and question where he chose to stand. They hated that he aligned himself with the unclean, those outside, those folks you ought neither to touch nor be near. He hob-knobbed with the leper, shared table fellowship with the sinner, and rendered himself ritually impure in the process. They found it offensive that, to boot, Jesus had no regard for their wedge issues, their constitutional amendments, or their culture wars.

The Left was equally annoyed. They wanted to see the ten-point plan, the revolution in high gear, the toppling of sinful social structures. They were impatient with his brand of solidarity. They wanted to see him taking the right stand on the issues, not just standing in the right place.

But Jesus just stood with the outcast. The Left screamed, “Don’t just stand there, DO something!” And the Right maintained, “Don’t stand with those folks at all!” Both sides, seeing Jesus the wrong size for this world, came to their own reasons for wanting him dead. Both sides were equally impressed as he unrolled the scroll and spoke of good news to the poor, sight to the blind, liberty to captives. Yet only a handful of verses later, they wanted to throw Jesus over a cliff.

How do we get the world to change, anyway? Dorothy Day asked, critically, “Where were the saints to try and change the social order? Not just minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?” Dorothy Day is a hero of mine, but I disagree with her here. You actually abolish slavery by accompanying the slave. We don’t strategize our way out of slavery, we solidarize, if you will, our way toward its demise. We stand in solidarity with the slave, and by so doing, we diminish slavery’s ability to stand. By casting our lot with the gang member, we hasten the demise of demonizing. All Jesus asks is, “Where are you standing?” And after chilling defeat and soul-numbing failure, he asks again, “Are you still standing there?”

Can we stay faithful, and persistent in our fidelity, even when things seem not to succeed? I suppose Jesus could have chosen a strategy that worked better (“evidence-based outcomes”) that didn’t end in the cross. But he couldn’t find a strategy more soaked with fidelity than the one he embraced.

Always Open

My two boys attend pre-school at a church down the way from our house. P is in the oldest class, and goes through the carpool line. C is in the youngest class, and has to be walked in.

It’s a bit of a hassle, but it has its rewards. I drop P off first, and while I circle the building to park and walk in, he navigates from the portico to his classroom all by himself (such a big boy!), with his slightly-too-long tote bag dragging the ground beside him. If I time it just right, I can catch sight of him through the classroom door as I walk down the hall to C’s class. I can see P hanging up his bag, hugging his teacher, or writing his name at the check-in table (no easy task at his age).

One day last week, I walked in with C after dropping off P, and the principal stationed in the hallway just by P’s class ran up to me, alarmed. She said P had stopped, five steps short of his classroom, and burst into tears. He was inconsolable. The other principal pulled him into the science room to help him calm down and determine what was the matter. The principal asked me, did I have any ideas? Not really. I dropped off C and came back upstairs. They said P had calmed down and was just fine…no explanation.

After school, I asked P about it. “Oh, yeah!” he chuckled. “The door was shut, so I thought I was late. But it was the wrong door.”

The classroom just next door to P’s class is not being used this year. It is empty. The door is kept shut. Pierce thought he had arrived at his class, but instead of a bright room filled with friends greeting him, he found a closed door to an empty room. He saw himself shut out, alone in the hall, nose to nose with wood grain, and assumed he must have done something wrong. I’m too late. What sweet 4-yr-old heart could endure such guilt and such unexpected exclusion without breaking down into sobs?

Like sensitive pre-schoolers, we all navigate life looking for warmth and acceptance. For home, friends, belonging. A place to hang up our oversized bags, where we can painstakingly and ploddingly write our names, declare our identities. To say, “Here I am!” and hear in response, “So glad you are!” We look for an open door to walk through, to enter a room where we’ll find God, and be found by God.

This same child-like sensitivity can make us tend towards self-protection. We build walls all around us, inserting doors where we subject others to inspections, and reserve the right to exclude anyone who could threaten us. Fr. Gregory Boyle SJ says, “It is precisely because we have such an overactive disapproval gland ourselves that we tend to create God in our own image.”

We spend our lives building walls and guarding doors, so we assume God does the same thing. But God is the one knocking. “Behold,” Jesus says, “I stand at the door and knock.” The transactional requirements we develop, enforced through cracked doors, can become as convoluted as playground games, so we assume God’s requirements are the same. But Jesus continues, “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter.”

Simple. God knocks. All we have to do is be open.

We navigate life, colliding with walls, bumping into doors, being told that if only we met certain requirements, we would be let in. We start to believe that the warmth and acceptance we seek, the home and belonging we need, have to be earned. And if we don’t have them, we must have done something wrong. Or we ourselves must be wrong. Hopelessly flawed, unacceptable. “It is truly hard for us to see the truth that disapproval does not seem to be part of God’s DNA.” Fr. Boyle reminds us. “God is just too busy loving us to have any time left for disappointment.”

Like P learned, when we walk up to a door and find it closed, it’s the wrong door. We learn, more slowly and ploddingly than learning to write our names, that God is Love, the perfect Love that casts out fear, not sensitive souls. No need to sob alone in the shadow. The right door is the one that’s always open.

 

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

This afternoon, my younger son and I were home alone together. He’d just woken up from his nap, so he was warm, snuggly, and fussy. I went through the after-nap care process: change the diaper, offer protein, offer sugar, offer water. He didn’t want anything and he was still fussy. So we squeezed through the cramped entryway of our 1948 bungalow and went out into the crisp November day to check the mail.

CW, my 20-month-old, LOVES going out to the mailbox because he LOVES a chance to see the neighbors. Keep in mind, we live on a busy road. It’s an access road to an Interstate, not your peaceful suburban cul-de-sac. We see all kinds of people jogging, dog-walking, strolling their babies. We see even more people driving (speeding) by, especially on beautiful days like today, with their windows down and music playing. If we could make a playlist of the music we hear, it would be the most eclectic mix imaginable–rock n roll, hip hop, cumbias, punk, metal, pop… Sometimes the noise of traffic makes its own music–the percussion of trucks going over our pot hole, horns honking impatiently, or motorcycles providing an unexpected crescendo. And CW loves it. He jumps up and down, claps, smiles, waves, laughs… Whether they see him or not, he welcomes them. Wholeheartedly.

Since it was such a beautiful, perfect Autumn day, as soon as we set foot on the front step, I started singing the song from Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” I’m sure you remember the words, like I do:

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?

It’s a neighborly day in this beauty wood,
A neighborly day for a beauty.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?

I’ve always wanted to have a neighbor just like you.
I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you, so
Let’s make the most of this beautiful day.
Since we’re together, we might as well say,

‘Would you be mine, could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?’

Won’t you please?
Won’t you please?
Please, won’t you be my neighbor?

I sing this song around the house on a regular basis. It’s one of those tunes that gets in my head very easily, but I never mind because it’s a sweet song. But today, it really struck me. Between the freshness of the air, the instant calm I sensed in CW when we stepped outside, his excitement at seeing a woman walking a dog, and my own vulnerability resulting from the current civil climate, something clicked.

What a beautiful song. What an incredible statement of unconditional love and acceptance. Of welcome. It appeared to me in that moment to be a prayer. Or rather, a combination of two “prayers” I’ve been practicing lately: the Loving-kindness and the Welcoming Prayers.

The Loving-kindness exercise is simple, but not easy. Find a comfortable seated position, close your eyes, and place both hands over your heart with a gentle pressure. You repeat a phrase while you envision a series of people, spending a few minutes on each one. First, you envision someone who embodies loving-kindness for you: a spiritual or religious figure, or even your dog or cat (that can be fun). And you repeat, “May you be happy. May you be peaceful. May you be free from suffering.” Then you turn the phrase to yourself. “May I be happy. May I be peaceful. May I be free from suffering.” Then you turn to a loved one, then to a loved one in need, and then to someone in your life that causes you a bit of difficulty, and then to broader groups of people and eventually the entire world and all living things.

The Welcoming Prayer is much more strenuous. When you find yourself caught up in strong emotions in the heat of an intense experience, you take a moment to focus on your feeling(s) and their impact on your physical body. You name the feeling, you identify it in your body, and you focus on it, let it move through you without resisting it. If the feeling is fear, you repeat, “Welcome, fear. Welcome, fear. Welcome, fear…” until the feeling has run its course. The purpose of the prayer is to interrupt our usual pattern of ignoring the feeling, bypassing it straight to action. (When that does happen, it is called ‘watching yourself go over the waterfall.’) It gives us time to care for ourselves, so that we can respond in a caring way to others. There’s an optional “tag” at the end of the prayer, once the feeling has passed:

I let go of my need for esteem and affection.
I let go of my need for power and control.
I let go of my need for safety and security.
I let go of my need to change the situation.

So often we let those three needs get in our way. We hold on so tightly to needing esteem, control, safety, etc., that our attempts to achieve them actually prevent us from getting our needs met. We all have our knee-jerk responses to feeling threatened in these areas, which usually fall into two categories: greed (holding on to things we perceive as good or pleasurable) and hatred (pushing away the things we perceive as bad or unpleasant). When we do either of those, we limit our focus. Like St. Paul says, we see only in part. The Welcoming Prayer is supposed to help atrophy those knee-jerk pathways, so we can respond to changes and challenges with equanimity. We can come a little closer to seeing the way God sees–where darkness and light are both alike, where things aren’t black and white. Where all are welcome, even the people and changes we want to pull away from. Where there’s no shame, and we can feel our fear and anger, and not be ruled by them.

Thomas Aquinas says all things are contained in God. Meister Eckhart echoes that vastness by saying, “God is greater than God.” And Fr. Gregory Boyle elaborates,

Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel says, ‘How narrow is the gate that leads to life.’ Mistakenly, I think, we have come to believe that this is about restriction. The way is narrow. But it really wants us to see that narrowness is the way. St Hedwig writes, ‘All is narrow for me, I feel so vast.’ It’s about funneling ourselves into a central place. Our choice is not to focus on the narrow, but to narrow our focus. The gate that leads to life is not about restriction at all. It is about an entry into the expansive.

Stepping outside with CW today felt like that. Out of the stuffy house, isolated, sleepy, and clingy, he burst through our narrow doorway into the invigorating expansiveness of our street with an attitude of utter delight and welcome. He asked every person zooming by our mailbox, “Would you be mine? Could you be mine?” Every person he sees, he seems to greet from the same place as Mr. Rogers: “I’ve always wanted to have a neighbor just like you.” With your weird music and smelly car. No matter where you’re going or where you’re coming from. No matter your color, shape, or size. Whoever you are, the fact that you and I are here on this street together, makes us neighbors. You’re just the one God sent down the street this moment, and so you’re just the one I wanted.

Would you consider joining me in a new exercise? It’s a combination loving-kindness / welcoming exercise, written by Mr. Rogers.

Go outside to your mailbox, at the edge of your driveway, to the boundary of what’s “private” and “public” space. Begin to sing Mr. Rogers’s song to yourself, silently or aloud. The first time through, sing it to God. The second time, sing it to yourself. Then, sing it to your actual neighbors, turning to face each different home or building as you sing.

Then, imagine different neighbors: an African-American family, a family of Mexican immigrants, a Muslim family, a same-sex couple. Someone with different religious beliefs. Different political views. Anyone whose perceived different-ness causes you to feel threatened, so that your knee-jerk response is to seek out esteem/affection, power/control, or safety/security by pushing that person away. Even if that person doesn’t actually live in your immediate physical neighborhood, your life and theirs are linked. Your well-being and their well-being are linked. Whether we admit it or not, we are all neighbors. We are all contained in God, all live and move and have our being in God. God’s vastness and expansiveness includes us all–all our darkness and all our light are the same to God.

Let’s make the most of this beautiful day. 
Since we’re together, we might as well say,
‘Would you be mine? Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?’

Won’t you please, won’t you please? 
Oh, please, won’t you be

my neighbor?

Identifying plants: Cardamine pensylvanica

Luckily–or unluckily, depending on your point of view–the previous owners of our house never did a day of yard work in all the ten years they lived here. The unlucky side is that parts of the property are infested with non-native plants, some of which are choking out beneficial ones. The lucky side is that there is also an abundance of small, obscure native wildflowers that you almost never see, in our thoughtless, controlling landscaping culture.

One of these native wildflowers, Cardamine pensylvanica, is well-established in my yard (mostly on the lawn, much to my poor husband’s annoyance). It is commonly known as Pennsylvania Bittercress. The leaves can be eaten, raw or cooked, according to the source above.

Mature Pennsylvania Bittercress
Mature Pennsylvania Bittercress

They are also eaten by a few insect species, occasionally Evergestis pallidata catterpillars (purple-backed cabbageworm moth) and Anthocharis midea catterpillars (falcate orangetip butterfly), as well as flower flies and aphids.

Evergestis pallidata caterpillar
Evergestis pallidata caterpillar
Falcate orangetip butterfly
Falcate orangetip butterfly

These little plants have a lot of personality! The dainty white flowers reach above the height of the grass. The seed pods stand erect, and when they are mature, a gentle nudge or breeze sends them flying in all directions. This particular species of Cardamine thrives in damp or muddy locations, and pops up in the early (wet) part of spring in Georgia. Seed pods can mature as early as April, so pulling the plants in March to make salad seems like the best way to keep them off the lawn. Or you could leave them for the bugs to eat!

Granny’s Buttermilk Biscuits

My granny is the Queen of the Southern Buttermilk Biscuit. Hers are the best. Even when her 40+ year-old oven was on the fritz, and no one could predict whether they would come out burnt or raw or somewhere in between, they were still delicious. She has that magic touch. When my sisters and I got old enough to be of any use around the kitchen, Granny took it upon herself to share that magic with us. Unfortunately, I seem to be a squib when it comes to biscuit magic. Without Granny looking over my shoulders, telling me what to do, I am lost.

The main reason for my lack of success, I think, is due to Granny’s completely intuitive biscuit-making style. Just like with all Southern old ladies, you can’t measure kitchen magic. You can’t express it mathematically and write it down in a recipe book for someone else to reproduce with the same results. Biscuit-making is a performance art. My old ballet master used to say (in his Polish accent), “Each performance is unique and independent from previous performances. When you step on stage, you should not try to reproduce the same successful show you did last night. What worked last night will not work tonight. Today is not yesterday. Tonight’s performance is not last night’s performance.” These biscuits are not yesterday’s biscuits.

Granny’s magic comes from her ability to know just exactly what tiny tweaks are required to make today’s biscuits come out perfectly. Even though it may seem to a casual observer that she stirred together the self-rising flour, buttermilk, and vegetable oil in the same ratios as yesterday, she knows that today’s dough needs more oil (because it’s too sticky), or more flour (because it’s too goopy), or it needs some very complicated additions of this and that because it’s got several problems going on at once. It’s very easy for the novice to feel frustrated, or downright baffled, by her methods. But it’s important to remember that she’s been making biscuits for nearly 60 years! That kind of maturity, artistry, and discernment take time to develop. Granny herself will admit to her brother Flash laughing at her biscuits for years when she was young. I’m sure there have been many instances where she was glad that today’s biscuits are not yesterday’s biscuits!

There have certainly been instances where I was glad that today’s biscuits were not yesterday’s, or that today’s performance was not yesterday’s, or that today was not yesterday in general. When yesterday was nothing to celebrate, it’s easy to approach the stage, or the mixing bowl, or whatever, with that mixture of relief, excitement, and determination to make magic. But when yesterday was triumphant, glorious, exultant, what then? I used to think the ballet master’s “today is a new day” speech was a total buzz-kill, because he would always give that speech following a near-perfect show, not a poor one. I suspected he was trying to communicate a lack of faith in us, a refusal to admit that we could put on two good shows in a row. But over time, my suspicions changed. I think he knew the power that overconfidence and overexcitement have to make immature performers take things for granted, to turn on the cruise control and just breeze through a performance, without realizing what happened until it’s over.

It’s easy to approach the stage, or the mixing bowl, or whatever, focused on identifying and correcting what we’ve done wrong. It takes slightly more expertise to identify and reproduce what we’ve done right. But the most important thing, I think, is realizing that each performance is a gift. In the early days of ballet, the term for dancing on stage was not called “performing,” but “giving a performance.” Similarly, I think, “cooking” is a less appropriate phrase than “serving.” In both cases, yes, we work and tweak and practice, but what creates that magic is not reproducing a recipe, not reciting something memorized by rote, not cruising on yesterday’s energy. The source of the magic is the knowledge that each day, each performance, each biscuit is a gift, is a unique and fleeting experience that happens once in a lifetime. Without that attitude, we might gain a knowledge of performance techniques, an ability to identify what’s right or wrong, but we won’t acquire the artistry that produces a beautiful, inspiring, or delicious gift—or even the grace to appreciate when we’re receiving one.

—Edit (3/13/12): I’ve updated the following recipe a few times. This is my best version yet, but still not as delicious as Granny’s.—

Anyway, all this is to say that I tried to make biscuits today.  They turned out poorly.  Since I’m an unfortunate kitchen squib, I need to keep track of what works and what doesn’t.  The following recipe is not perfect. The resulting biscuits will be good, but I can’t promise they’ll be a magical, once-in-a-lifetime gift.

Squib Buttermilk Biscuits
3 c Self-Rising Flour
slightly more than 1 c  Buttermilk
slightly less than 1 c Canola Oil

Mix the ingredients together in a large bowl using your hands. It is the right texture when it sticks to your fingers a little bit, and it looks doughy. Dump the dough onto a clean work surface and knead it a few times. Don’t pat it down to less than 1″. Cut into circles with 2″ diameters. Place them very close together on a baking sheet. (These biscuits don’t rise very much, so you want them to go into the oven at the same height you hope to see when they come out, and keeping them close together prevents them from spreading outwards.) Bake at 475 for 9 minutes. Serve warm with a slice of ham and cheese in the middle! Or a fried egg… Or cheese grits… Or leftover pot roast… These biscuits go with everything!

Great Cloud of Witnesses

I wrote this short essay for my dance students in January, 2011, as a response to their own essays, which were part of a dance appreciation assignment. They were instructed to watch a video of a famous work of dance and summarize the piece’s message and their own response.
-Doe 

There is a research article about dancers suggesting that dancers have two genes separating them from other athletes and artists.  One of these genes gives them a heightened sense of spirituality, and the other gives them an increased ability to connect with other people via symbolic communication.  These two senses allow us dancers to feel inspired when we watch a dance performance.  They also allow us to provide that same inspiration when we dance for others.

This emphasis on spirituality and connection reminds me of the point Paul makes in Hebrews 11 and 12.  In chapter 11, he reminds the readers of their Old Testament ancestors.  He recaps the ways each of those ancestors demonstrated their faith, and argues that what they have in common is a willingness to trust God enough to take huge risks.  Noah built the ark while others ridiculed him, Abraham offered his only son Isaac as a sacrifice, Moses’s mother hid him from the Egyptians, etc.  Paul says that all of these faithful ancestors took risks and endured suffering, even though none of them received all that God had promised in their own lifetimes.  They all died without seeing proof of their faith, but they continued to take risks based on their belief:

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect”  (Hebrews 11:39-40).

These faithful ancestors demonstrate heightened senses of spirituality and connection.  Their spirituality allowed them to know that the most valuable things in life are not tangible, and to believe that the true reward for their faith would come in the next life.  Their sense of connection allowed them to be comforted by knowing that faithful descendants would come after them.  Noah built the ark so that his family could endure the flood and produce faithful descendants, who would reap the benefits of his faith.  Abraham trusted God’s promise that he would have a family with many descendants, who would reap the benefits of Abraham’s faith.  Moses’s mother believed that God would use her son to free the Israelites from slavery, so that her descendants would reap the benefits of her faith.  Hundreds of generations later, Paul and his friends drew inspiration and comfort from these stories, so that they became descendants of that faith.  And we, sitting here reading the stories, also become descendants of that faith.

After Paul reminds his readers of their faithful ancestors, he encourages them to follow in their footsteps by living out their faith, trusting God, and taking risks:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders, and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us”  (Hebrews 12:1).

Just as our ancestors lived by faith, so can we. We can take risks based on our belief in unseen things. We can inspire those around us to live by faith, to take risks, and to trust in God’s promises.

When I watch dance performances on stage, DVDs, or youtube, I think of the famous dancers sort of as my faithful ancestors, similar to Noah or Abraham or Moses.  I think of them as my “great cloud of witnesses.”  Every famous dancer endured suffering and hardship, took risks, believed in something bigger than themselves. Those are the things that made them great.  And if they can do that, I can do it.  If they can take risks, inspire audiences, and bring hope and healing to those who watch them, then so can I.  No, I may not be able to do 32 consecutive fouettes or hold my leg as high as my ear, but those things are the icing on the cake.  As a dancer, yes, I work hard and go through pain to train my body to the best of my ability, but the goal is not to be better than other dancers or to do circus tricks.  The goal is to bring my individuality and uniqueness, my hard work and preparation, and my faith and risk-taking to the stage, and through that to foster a spiritual connection with the audience that provides joy, hope, and healing.

Throughout life, there are always people who don’t understand us, who don’t appreciate us, who criticize us, etc.—especially as dancers. When we present ourselves on a stage in front of people, it’s bound to happen.  There are days when we feel like no one likes us, or we can’t do anything right, and that nothing we do matters.  On those days, it’s comforting to imagine a “great cloud of witnesses”—people who know how we feel because they have endured the same thing.  They endured pain because they trusted in a divine spiritual power.  They endured criticism because they know that there was something bigger than themselves, something grander to be gained—a connection to their own dance ancestors, to those in the audience, and to their dance descendants (us!).

Christ is the greatest example of this.  He endured physical pain, unfair criticism, ridicule, etc.  He suffered more than we have, or probably ever will.  But he did it as a demonstration of his faith.  He took the greatest risk, he put his whole life down, because he trusted that his father would give him something better in return—a connection with us!

I can only conclude that dance is an act of faith.  Dancers must be vulnerable, be willing to take risks and make mistakes.  They must be willing to stand in the spotlight and reach out through the darkness to the audience, unable to know whether the audience is reaching back. And though we rarely, if ever, receive confirmation of our success or gratitude for our sacrifice, we know that recognition and gratitude are not the goal.  The goal is to create a spiritual connection with the audience by offering a gift of joy, hope, and healing; and with each connection, our “great cloud of witnesses” expands by one.

The Valley of Love and Delight

(This post is a response to a recent entry over at my sister blog, Life Is Cosmic.)

I can relate very strongly to the overwhelming feeling of living in a “prolonged state of uncertainty.” I won’t bore you with my personal sources of uncertainty. But the longer I live, the more I think that this is normal for everyone, all the time—and it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Remember the first day of Algebra? The thought of defining Unknowns seemed so foreign, so challenging and stressful at the time, but we mastered it.  Just as soon as that got easy, we moved onto geometry.  Calculus followed so quickly, we never got to appreciate what we learned in geometry.  Now that we’re grown-up-ladies, there’s no teacher, no clearly defined problem, no right or wrong answers. We are constantly acquiring and applying new knowledge, skills, and perspectives at such a rate that we barely take note of it. Because of that, it feels like everything is a blur whizzing before our eyes, there’s no way to re-focus, to re-asses what we’ve learned.  So it feels like we’re not learning anything, like we’re lost in a world of uncertainty.

But, unlike Algebra I, and unlike the Rob Thomas song, as grown-up-ladies, our goal is no longer to isolate and define x and y. Our goal is not to “figure all this out” or “put an end to … doubt.” Instead of black and white, there are infinite shades of gray. Rather than a simple system of two equations with two unknowns, our lives are complex systems of differential equations containing thousands of unknowns. Our goal is to live with uncertainty, not to eliminate it.  The system of equations is no longer a way to define unknowns, but a way to express complex relationships in multiple dimensions.  When we have to, we make reasonable assumptions about those unknowns as they relate to our own priorities.  But our priorities are the relationships, the trends, and the truths expressed by the equations.  Not the unknowns themselves.

No, I’m not communicating my thoughts very clearly. I think BabyGirl says it better:

“BabyGirl twirled in circles like a ballerina.  Except she doesn’t know the trick of keeping your head pointed at a fixed object like ballerinas do, so she gets dizzy very quickly and falls over in a heap.”

She was trying to remind us of the old Shaker hymn,

“‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be;
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained, to bow and bend we shan’t be ashamed.
To turn, turn, will be our delight,
‘Till by turning, turning, we come ’round right.”

Now, when I’m feeling particularly down on myself about being jobless, friendless, and childless, I think very sad, dark thoughts about “the place just right.” I worry I’ll never find that place. But I try to remember what a teacher once told me: “God’s will isn’t always a place, or even a path, it’s a way of living,” a way of prioritizing, of defining boundaries and goals. We can be doing God’s will when we’re in the place just right, we can be doing God’s will as we spin and turn in search of that place, we can be doing God’s will even when we fall down in a heap.

That “trick of keeping your [eyes focused on] a fixed object” that ballerinas do is called Spotting.  Spotting keeps you from getting dizzy by limiting the amount of visual information that bombards your brain.  Rather than taking in a blurred haze of everything surrounding you and expending energy trying to isolate and define those unknowns, your brain can focus on one thing. Choosing the place for the Spot depends on the dancer’s goal.  It can be the audience, a corner light, or (if you’re executing many turns in a moving pattern) the location of the Spot can change from one turn to the next. In that sense, the Spot defines the boundary of each turn, allows you to re-focus and re-prioritize, and figure out where in the world you are.

Spotting is like doing God’s will. Each person’s Spot depends on their goals, their own unique blend of priorities like faith, family, career, etc. Our Spot is an unmoving source of stability, the thing we rely on to re-focus, re-asses, and figure out where in the world we are when everything seems like a blur of unknowns. The act of Spotting allows us to eliminate the superfluous aspects of our surroundings that threaten to overwhelm and dizzify us. But it just prevents falling from dizziness, it doesn’t prevent falling altogether.  And falling from dizziness isn’t always a bad thing.  If (and when!) we lose focus on our Spot and the world becomes a terrifying blur of uncertainty, falling is the quickest way to make the room stop spinning. Sometimes we get lucky and fall into our place just right without meaning to. And if we don’t, as long as we know where our Spot is, it’s easy to get back up, face it, and try again.

Even if she did it by falling in a heap, BabyGirl was trying to tell you that she came ’round into her place just right.  She’s in the Valley of Love and Delight because she has you and the Professor.  She has smart, caring parents who love her, and who allow her—and each other—to bow and bend, to turn and fall and get back up, without being ashamed.  You’re doing God’s will not only by “spotting” as you perform your own turns, but also by being each other’s “spot,” by providing each other with a physical, emotional, and spiritual source of certainty.

It’s funny to me to hear you wish that you’ll “be better off somehow, someday.” (I know, the grass is always greener…) From my point of view, you couldn’t be any better off, because you are active, integral members of a community of friends and families that love, support, and value each other. To me, that’s the definition of the Valley of Love and Delight. But I do also have a taste of what it’s like to lack the opportunity to fully invest one’s own skills and passions. I do know the awful, awful feeling of living with constant, prolonged uncertainty. And the only source of comfort I’ve come up with is Spotting. I don’t believe it’s probable to come ’round right without turning, and turning…and turning. And while we’re turning, it feels like the blur of uncertainty will never end.  And even though you have plenty of people closer-by who can provide more tangible, immediate support, I’ll always be honored to be part of your Spot, someone you can turn to for stability in an unstable world.