Ode to the gifts of the horrible year that was

January 11, 2018

From the backseat, on the way to kindergarten, my five-year-old son asked, “Mom, why do scientists make bombs to kill people?” I paused at the profundity of his question, one I too have wondered, then answered humbly, “I don’t know.”

Almost as unfathomable to me is the intentional destruction of American democracy by those elected to uphold it, and their cruelty toward the vulnerable. Daily I ask, how can this be happening? I was told recently that if I could accept that it IS happening and that people like that exist, I would be better able to live my own values and help to create something different.

In 2017, I rode regular waves of existential fear for my son’s future. Will he live in a free country? Will he be able to vote for his leaders? Will his young life be cut short by nuclear war?

By the time the Las Vegas massacre happened, I thought I had become numb. I didn’t feel anything when first reading news of nearly 500 people shot and 58 killed at a country music festival, but then I watched a video that captured the sound of weapons of war mowing down mothers, fathers, teenage daughters and veteran sons. I saw country star Jason Aldean run off the stage in fear, and I cried all day while trying to work.

Over the course of the year, as my Facebook friends posted about their lives, but increasingly not about politics, and my Twitter feed was full of intelligent people discussing the daily state of our government, but not much about their personal lives, I yearned to read someone who would speak to both. I didn’t want advice; I just wanted to hear how they were taking care of themselves and their children within this national context. So that’s what this is, my story about how I’ve gotten by during the most challenging and clarifying year of my life as a citizen, mother and human being.

I woke up on December 31st grateful that we had made it. We are still alive and our country still has a fighting chance. I now know that I’m ok – even while I am sensitive to the suffering of others, and disgusted almost every day by what I learn in the news.

Early on, a teacher said to me, “Don’t let a tyrant steal your light.” These are the people and unexpected gifts that helped me keep my light.

My husband

P1050024He’s kind, smart and sexy. He stays calm when I am not. I love that in his work he serves children from low-income families. It wasn’t until this year though, seven years into our marriage, that I knew for sure he was meant for the deepest part of me. The part I’ve learned to hide. The part that shakes with grief about what is happening to our country and fears we’ll see things we cannot yet imagine and may not survive, at least with our souls intact.

He never shames me for how much I feel or how often I need to talk about what is happening. He doesn’t roll his eyes when I ask how we’ll spend the last 10 minutes of our family’s life if we receive an alert that nuclear war has begun.

When I call our red-state Senators, and wonder if it matters, he says, “Thank you for doing that.”

Most importantly, we talk about how to parent our son now. How do we shield his innocence, engage wholeheartedly in his joy, and prepare him for his future life in our country? What choices do we make that serve both our son and our communal duty to other people’s children? We feel responsible for the country and the earth we leave him and generations of others.

Speaking of… this guy, our son

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Thank God that our five-year-old’s endlessly rejuvenating joie de vivre commands my attention. I know that I will never again have this exact moment with my precious child and I’d be wise to fully participate. With him and for him, I laugh easily, I chase, I cannonball, I wrestle, I build, and I hold on tight for 20-second hugs.

My best friend

As my panic rose on election night, a feeling I recognized from the days before my Dad died, I texted my best friend in Virginia as she hosted a champagne party anticipating a vastly different outcome. She is the only one I could write mid-year during some awful legislative week, “I don’t think I’m very good at being happy” and be assured that to be having a hard time was normal. She sent me flowers with the note: “These days we need reminders that there are still beautiful things in the world. Your friendship is one of the most beautiful things in mine.” And because I know she pays attention, I love that she took a respite from the news to revel in the engagement of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. It gives me permission to do the same.

The Great American Eclipse

Being with my family in an open field amongst celebratory community was as much a part of this phenomenal experience as the tear-inducing moment of totality. It felt to me like the Bicentennial when I was seven years old riding my decpexels-photo-580679orated bike while neighbors stood on their front porches and rang silver bells. As the eclipse progressed, it was quite moving to sense that all across the country, my fellow Americans were looking into the heavens for something to heal our brokenness. I wondered if this cosmic happening was of the same stuff as Christ.

Dance class!

By the time summer came, I knew I needed a regular influx of joy in order to turn up my light for my family, my work in the world, and myself. So I thought, “When am I happiest, just for me?” and decided to start dancing again. The DanceFix class I take every Saturday morning is the most fun hour of my week. It is amazing what shaking your booty can do for your spirit.

These Books

Each of these healed and shaped me this year.

  • Paradise in Plain Sight, Lessons from a Zen Garden, by Karen Maezen Miller – Written by a Zen priest who is also a mother, I learned that this life, my life, this very year, this that seems so horrible, this is the Way.
  • Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid – Many times, I had to stop reading to breathe and absorb the sheer beauty of Hamid’s writing. This story of refugees reminded me of how lucky I am. Would that Americans could imagine how easily it may be us needing someone else to take us in.
  • Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates – When Houston Texans owner Robert McNair said about NFL players, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison,” I thought of this book and the way Black bodies are regarded as commodities with willing, extreme denial that within these bodies are human beings.
  • Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times, edited by Carolina De Robertis – I found parents here. While most of them are people of color or from immigrant families, having it thus much harder than I, I relished their letters to their children and ancestors, and their unwillingness to give up on our country’s promise, even if it takes a long, long time to realize.
  • Trump and a Post-Truth World, by Ken Wilber – This short, dense book helped me see how our society mirrors individual human development. I could then read about fellow Americans posessing what seems to be an astounding lack of compassion for others, including children, and understand that they cannot yet comprehend that they even should care about those outside their immediate circles of identification. I am the same way at times. It helped me recognize my own judgments, and what kind of leadership we all need to move civilization forward.
  • Pantsuit Nation, edited by Libby Chamberlin – I asked my husband for this for my birthday in December so that I could remember how it felt to read the heart-filling stories of all the different people who make America America.
  • The Rules Do Not Apply, by Ariel Levy – I read this in the last week of the year, during my son’s 20-day winter break from kindergarten. In it Levy tells of losing her premature baby boy after only 10 minutes of having him alive and on her chest. I would put my son to bed after playing all day, and rather than bemoan my exhaustion, I felt grateful for my luck that I get to be his mother.

My growing ability to see people of integrity “across the aisle”

Along with truth-telling journalists and deeply knowledgeable historians, I so appreciate those across the partisan spectrum who are fighting mightily to save our country from corruption, personal greed and foreign interference. Though I am a lifelong Democrat, I’ve come to respect the integrity of some conservatives whom I may never have read otherwise. Without democracy, our policy differences won’t matter and no one, not even those who seem to benefit, will have a real chance at “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The Virginia Election

One of the best days of 2017 was the election of Ralph Northam to the Governorship of Virginia, along with a slew of diverse women and men to the state legislature. My family had already made the decision to move home to the Commonwealth this summer and the thought of having a decent and intelligent leader is quite heartening. I also look forward to being in a bipartisan state as it seems the strongest way forward, even if difficult.

And the little things, like…

  • Breathing into my belly to ground my over-active heart.
  • Yin yoga to calm my body and clear my mind.earrings
  • My Gloria Steinem/Ruth Bader Ginsburg earrings. I wear these (as do my sisters and my mom) when I need bad-asses as spirit guides.
  • Naming three things I’m grateful for upon waking and another three before I close my eyes at night. I hope when I get to the end of my time, I will be able to follow John McCain’s example and “celebrate, with gratitude, a life well lived.”
  • White Sun’s “Ik Ardas Wahe Guru” – listening to this makes me exhale.
  • The Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean – No explanation needed. May we protect them.IMG_6135

 

Lastly, these words of wisdom from a nightingale

When I wonder how to talk with my young son about the world he lives in and how to navigate our path in a time of such tumult, I think about this passage I read to him from The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine by Mark Twain and Philip Stead, with the most beautiful illustrations by Erin Stead (pages 90-91):

Prince Oleomargarine

“When dinner was nearly done, the nightingale excused herself. She shook the crumbs from her feathers and flew up to a high branch. From there, she sang a sweet song. It had no words, but still, everyone present knew its meaning, which was:

The world is beautiful and dangerous,

and joyful and sad,

and ungrateful and giving,

and full of so, so many things.

The world is new and it is old.

It is big and it is small.

The world is fierce and it is kind,

and we, every one of us, are in it.”

 

That’s it. That’s what I’ve learned this year. Now onward, with heart…

 

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I am the Ocean

February 6, 2017

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I am the ocean.

I am the ocean.

I am the ocean.

This meditation, which I learned from Tara Brach, is the only one that brings me peace right now. When I wonder how my splayed-open heart is going to make it through our national horror show, I remember that I am the ocean, and while my grief and terror may be mighty waves, they cannot consume me. The ocean that is my true nature can hold them all.

We, the people, are the ocean of our roiling country. The waves are breaking constantly, some seem purposefully to be tsunamis. I pray that our democracy is deep and wide enough to see them dissipate in her vastness.

Zen Buddhist priest Karen Maezen Miller writes in her beautiful book Paradise in Plain Sight, “The nature of life is impermanence. One day it will get your attention.” Life has indeed gotten my attention.

As a young girl in the 70’s being raised by a feminist mother, I grew up singing “Free to Be You and Me”:

There’s a land that I see where the children are free

And I say it ain’t far to this land from where we are…  

I see a land bright and clear, and the time’s comin’ near,

When we’ll live in this land, you and me, hand in hand…

And you and me are free to be you and me.

I know this vision of our country did not yet fully exist for everyone, and many have suffered horrendously in its pursuit. I believed though that we were headed there. At recent protests and at the Women’s March, I felt it still.

There is so much to fathom about our democracy’s potential demise. I grieve the thought of living in a country that does not prize compassion as one of its highest values. My greatest fear is that my child’s young life will end instantly in a nuclear war.

This national, international and earthly calamity hit at a time when I had lost my confidence in an interventionist God that can or will help. I’m embarrassed to have had such an understanding in the first place – surely if such a power existed, there would have been no slavery, no Holocaust, no Hiroshima, no Sandy Hook, no desperate refugee families refused at America’s door.

Then I watched the documentary White Helmets about the Syrian volunteers who dig for survivors and pull the dead bodies of their neighbors, families and fellow citizens out of buildings bombed by their own government. The White Helmets’ incredibly loving service in the midst of unspeakable horror is one of the most stunning and humble examples of Goodness manifest. For me, it is God.

I know that goodness exists everywhere and, I believe, within everyone, however covered up by our crap, or as the Buddhists would say, our ignorance. I am choosing to rest my hope for our country’s salvation on each of us rising to the occasion from our true nature whether we are a judge in Seattle, a Republican Senator who can stomach it no longer, a mother trying to make life feel normal for her child, or thousands of volunteer lawyers showing up at airports to help the stunned, stranded and bereft.

Journalist Sarah Kendzior writes, in this must-read piece (among all of her must-read reporting), “Do not accept brutality and cruelty as normal even if it is sanctioned. Protect the vulnerable and encourage the afraid. If you are brave, stand up for others. If you cannot be brave – and it is often hard to be brave – be kind.”

I do not know if goodness will win this time, but I hope so. Regardless, I will take great heart in the millions of mighty acts of love that have already begun rolling in like waves. I pray that I will remember that I too am the ocean, and that I will be brave and kind. One day in yoga many months ago, I prayed to God, “Please let me feel you.”  The response I heard was, “I am you.” I think perhaps this is what God meant.

Church

January 23, 2017

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Moral Courage

December 2, 2016

As I sit through a dark night of my soul and that of our country, and sort out what I need to say, I want to share this sermon by Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR in Los Angeles. She is my heroine when it comes to a spiritual leader’s use of her pulpit. Rabbi Brous gives perfect voice to what I want my son, when he is old enough, to know and act upon as well.

from IKAR’s website:

“November 19 – Shabbat Vayera
This. Is. Not. Normal.
To my daughter, who becomes bat mitzvah in a time of moral crisis for our nation: Practice resistance. Step up. Speak out. Don’t cozy up to power; don’t forget that your inheritance is willful opposition. Honor your moral intuition and remember that this is not normal.

Choosing My Life

June 26, 2016

“… we begin to sense a larger possibility that calls our heart and our soul towards our own natural awakening.” (Tara Brach, Talk, 6.1.2016)

I have a different sense of God lately. When in calm or desperate moments, I breathe low and shift my attention back and out from center; there I find Her. She is wide, free and kind. She doesn’t judge. I like to think that Her awareness is of the same Awareness that is present in everyone and is also greater than all of us. I understand better now how to surrender. The boundaries of me-Her ebb against the River of Life and, though I am scared to, She merges willingly and trusts the current to take us where we are meant to go.

With each mass shooting, each whole family murdered by an abuser with a gun, and each child accidentally killed with an unsecured firearm, I wonder when or if things are ever going to change. I beg God to please help our country. May we be safe. May my loved ones be safe. May all beings be safe. Yet that kind of prayer doesn’t seem to work, at least not on my small-mind timeline. The killings keep happening. Every day. There are scores of new grieving families every day.

I wonder now if it is not an external Being that is going to help us, but the God within each of us. I imagine that most gun owners and most members of Congress want the same safety for their families that I want for mine, even if we differ on the means of ensuring it. Were we each somehow to access and make decisions from our greater nature – that which encompasses peace, compassion and a fire that serves all humanity –  perhaps we could find meeting ground to save our children’s lives.

One of my favorite experiences in divinity school this year was interviewing several classmates about their understanding of God: what formed it and how it has changed over time. Listening to each of them share so sincerely about their traditional and off-the-beaten-path ideas and experiences of the Sacred was quite moving. Though this blog is an exploration of what God feels like in my own life and body, I do not want to tell anyone what they are to believe about their Higher Power. The children’s book Old Turtle by Douglas Wood speaks to how I feel about anything that insists that “my God is better than yours”:

But the people forgot.

They forgot that they were

A message of love,

And a prayer from the earth.

 

And they began to argue…

About who knew God,

And who did not;

And where God was,

And was not

And whether God was,

Or was not.

 

I went to divinity school because I thought that to reach people’s deep hearts, I needed more depth of knowledge about God, more than my experiential understanding. I had hoped to understand Jesus’s being and learn to interpret his teachings as the contemplatives do, recognizing now that this likely comes over the course of a lifetime (or more) and by the heart and mind sitting in silence. I uprooted my family and moved away from my home state even though I was told by a psychic that it l didn’t look right for me, and I was warned by a meditating priest to “run the other direction.”

I quit divinity school recently because what I was actually meant to learn was courage.

“It seems like something broke in you,” said my blessed mentor after a professor’s criticism of a paper led to copious tears. It had been a long time since I’d felt so belittled after giving my best (which, admittedly, was not very good by academic standards, but was indeed the best I could do within the boundaries of motherhood, marriage and self-care). When my son sweetly laid his head on my shoulder the next morning, it was balm for the wound.

What broke, actually, was my lifelong pursuit of outside validation of who I am, what God is for me, and the worthiness of what I have to give. That, I believe, was the River’s intent in getting me here.

Sarah Norris, my beautifully-spirited Nashville yoga teacher, often says as we lay in savasana with hands on hearts, “This is the life you choose.”  I chose to sit in a hard lecture hall seat this past year when I prefer to learn (and pray) sitting cross-legged on a mat, and it forced me to finally choose my soul’s path, instead of someone else’s.

I didn’t know that my “natural awakening” (for now at least) would happen like this. Its authenticity is freeing and powerful. It has created more joy in my family. I will never be a scholar nor will I ever walk solely on any one path. What I will do though is teach from who I am and share my own truth. At long last, that is enough for me.

Love

February 21, 2016

This morning in a rare moment of quiet conversation while our three-year-old son slept late, I asked my husband, “Why did you let me go to divinity school if you think it is a bunch of hooey?” He responded, “The realization that I might not be right.”

Little Arms

August 11, 2015

My family and I moved to Nashville so I can attend Divinity School and our son can grow up surrounded by music, progressive community and a church we love. My husband is also starting a new career after seven years of intense preparation. We are all glad to be here and at least one of us is also a little freaked out. “Will you be scared to go to your school?” my three-year-old asks, wondering if his own apprehension is okay to feel. “Yes,” I tell him, “because it matters a lot to me.” What I don’t say is that this will also be the first time my sweet son is going to pre-school every day and I will miss him. I fear losing our connection.

During the long hours of my husband’s training, I complained often about the resulting days of solo parenting. At times I felt desperate for a small break from lone responsibility for the all of the immediate needs of a small human being – entertaining, calming, teaching, feeding, protecting, bathing, changing, consoling and negotiating. There were bedtimes where I prayed for Divine intervention to help me through the last 30 minutes. There were regret and amends-making for losing my patience with my strong-willed boy.

Then I’d lifTandEsnugglingt up him up for our last hugs of the day, he would nestle his arms between us and rest his head on my shoulder, and I would be grateful for all of the two-of-us time. I get to experience feeling intertwined with his soul.

One morning after a wrenching pre-school drop-off with my son’s teacher hurrying me along and my child begging for one more hug, I went to yoga instead of my part-time job. My head and heart were torn in opposite directions “Should I have snatched him back and run out of the school? … They tell me he’s ok…. Am I failing him?… No, he loves being with friends…. A good mother would work during nap and at night instead of putting him in daycare.”

In the middle of class my teacher Meaghan told a Hindu tale of two sons:

One day Shiva and Parvati look out the window at their mango tree and see the most beautiful mango. They can’t decide to which of their two sons, Skanda or Ganesha, to give the mango. So they decide to have a contest: the fastest to race around the world will receive the fruit.

Skanda immediately takes off on his peacock around the world, while Ganesha sits down in meditation, perplexing his parents. Skanda returns ready to receive the mango. Ganesha arises from his meditation, circles his parents and says, “You are my world,” which earns him the mango.

I realized then that I am my son’s world – he is supposed to not want me to leave. My heart is supposed to ache when he aches. Being someone’s world, and doing it well, is a mighty purpose to fulfill. I fear that my stumbling and outright mistakes at parenting will scar him. I think, “if I only drink less caffeine, meditate more, do yoga but not be gone too much, stay by his side but not hover, keep him safe without filling him with fear, build a strong marriage, breathe, laugh, let go, hold him close” – maybe he will have a chance at a happy life and a strong sense of self.

I have now moved 1000 miles away from the hug of my own mother which, fortunately, is imprinted on my heart and my nervous system. As my son’s world opens further at his “Nashville preschool” (as he calls it), I pray that he will feel my love even when he is away from me. I recently met several Divinity School classmates for the first time and while listening to them talk about meaningful things – conversation I have long craved – I knew I had made the right choice to go back to school. After a couple of hours though, I drove home yearning to be with my husband and my child, who are my world.

I have been re-reading Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon for an infusion of the Great Mother before I dive into Christianity (and Eastern religions) in school. As a woman wanting to feel my real Self, and a wife and mother wanting to accept my imperfection, I pray often that I may be held in Loving-Kindness, as Tara Brach suggests in Radical Acceptance. While meditating recently on what feels like this more feminine aspect of God, Jesus showed up and said, “Let me change form.”

Ok, yes, I will.

Be my mothering, dear Jesus, comfort my son and inspire his joy when we are apart. Hold me like my own mother would when my heart is torn. Show up on occasion as the Great Mother, please. I need Her and you.

The Brea(st/d) of Heaven

August 30, 2014

A group of girlfriends, including our priest, humbly shared Communion around a circle. One mother of three small children handed the consecrated bread to the woman next to her and said accidentally, if appropriately, “The Body of Christ, the Breast of Heaven”. Much laughter ensued. I was moved by the potential meaning held in her unintentional substitution for the word “bread” – it remains an unforgettable Eucharist.

I wonder what it is like to breastfeed from God, to experience mutual need and devotion, intimacy and sustenance unlike any other. Do I already? Could I intentionally?

My son’s favorite part of church is what he calls “God’s Dinner”. It may be because he gets to move his little legs and see lots of people on our way up front, or it could be that he gets a snack. I think, however, he senses something more is happening. He seems in sweet awe as he holds his two-year-old palms up to receive this spiritual food. He has a skip in his step afterwards. Back in our pew, he always asks for more.

I experienced breastfeeding my son as a kind of sacrament, an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace” (Book of Common Prayer). In the wee dark hours, more than calories was transmitted. “Take, eat, this is my Body, which is given for you.” (BCP, Eucharistic Prayer II) It wasn’t my grace that flowed; it was the purest of God’s love feeding us both, and a passing of Peace between mother and babe.

It is no small feat to feed a child from your own body multiple times a day and night for weeks, months or years. During the harried moments of raising a baby into a toddler, it was within the calm of nursing that I remembered the profound nature of the mother role and what a privilege it is. A lot transpired in the 12-inch world we created between us in our blue denim rocking chair. It was there that my son rolled toy dump trucks and excavators across my chest, it was there we chanted about Sita and Ram during my yoga teacher training, and it was there we gazed into each other’s souls and fell deeper and deeper in love.

I often wonder, as I look at my son, if God loves me that completely. There were a few days last winter when I found myself saying, “I’m not a good person” because I had been bitchy, ungrateful, impulsive, and negative. These are the moments when I most want to contribute to God’s kingdom rather than take from it, and yet, I need time at the Breast of Heaven in order to right myself. I need to be held, to connect my soul with God, and to feel loved despite my shortcomings, maybe even, inclusive of them. Then I can be nudged towards what could be.

In the Hindu scripture The Bhagavad Gita, Krishna, the charioteer and teacher, gradually reveals himself to the warrior Arjuna as the Divine and as Arjuna’s immortal Self. Near the end of the story, he tells Arjuna that he loves him, that he is dear to him. I found this so touching. Could God also be this Self within me offering tender love and forgiveness to my imperfect, small “s” self?  

When people say “God loves you,” it feels like fluff to me, until I give credence to God’s love as I experience it – a surrounding presence within which I “live and breathe and have [my] being” (Acts 17:28). It is a healing energy that works its way into the inner reaches of my heart. It is as if I were a nursing baby and whenever I cry for my Mother, or even make a peep, She is there. This there-ness, that’s love to me.

Do we wean from God? As happens in a breastfeeding life cycle, I know that I have received highly personalized-for-each-stage-of-my-growth Divine nourishment. Sometimes I wonder if it is time for me to stop asking God for so much, and give what I already have. I don’t think, however, that I will ever grow out of needing to hear about Jesus’ vision of justice or tap in to his meditative presence. Nor can I imagine being beneficial for my family and the world without continually accessing a power greater than myself.  

I’m heartened that when weaning a child, allowing him to continue becoming his own self, his need for his mother is no less strong, and her love for him is no less fierce and no less present. This, I suspect, is how it is with God.