Friday, February 24, 2012

The moment between bars

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My week has been full of opposites, reminding me how I vacillate and that we all are works in progress.

Sunday, I spent an enriching afternoon in the company of other Quakers as we studied and grappled with death and dying. Meeting monthly, we're slowly reading a book on the subject by a Buddhist that requires self exploration. We shared our responses to what we envision as the worst death possible, then the best. The answers were wide-ranging and astounding. One Friend remarked that I am probably the minority in understanding and embracing that my death will be only me and God. And I am completely happy with that. I should confess that I have had a few mentors along the way who've shown me it's nothing to fear.

Monday gloriously opened casting the beautiful and full belly of a pregnant friend in plaster. She was radiant and I loved gently smothering her 35-week wide stomach with Vaseline, then wetting, wringing and applying the gauze strips. I smoothed each layer, working from chest to lower abdomen, side to side, capturing a wondrous shape that immediately appeared sculptural. One daughter cut strips and the younger,  wandered away. Perhaps it was too much, but for me, one who has given birth, it was a reminder of the beauty in the entire life-giving process. It was a privilege to trap this moment, this shape, reconnecting to my experience and looking ahead to those of this mother-to-be.

Tuesday, I facilitated my weekly spiritual-nurture group on one of my favorite subjects: the living water. We drank Italian sparkling water, listened to a bubbling fountain, were led through a guided meditation as we lay on the floor pretending to float, completely surrendering ourselves and, ended by washing each others' feet. It was lively, fun, moving and life affirming. Why can't we always treat each other this way? I thought. It was humbling to sooth another's feet, but even more so to be on the receiving end.

Wednesday, I was on the phone with an old family friend, listening to her describe her husband dying of Alzheimer's. I had made the call, prompted by my heart in honoring the gift of their friendship. Life was never dull when they visited or we ventured to Chicago: the New Year's their son teasingly locked us out on a second-floor porch in record-breaking low temperatures, sitting in their built-in naughty chair, hearing the story of how ancestors had a copy of the Mona Lisa crated away in a musty attic or the countless times Chris, the one dying, made us laugh ... hysterically. He has the best sense of humor of anyone I've ever known. Last weekend, when his son visited, he saluted his father and asked: "Permission to board?" It was a joke between them, but also a sign of respect as the father had been a Navyman. After two weeks of not uttering a word, Chris replied: "Permission denied" and the room cracked up. His wife confessed how difficult it is to see her spouse withering in the 112-pound frame until he smiles and transforms. She even crawled into bed and held him one night until he slept. He finds comfort when they recite the Lord's prayer together and she continually prays on the trip to visit for strength and receives it every time.

Thursday, I let one daughter play hooky. She's growing up so fast and we rarely get one-on-one time. We shopped and dined at Ikea, then slid into the city, Findlay Market to be precise, for an Indian cooking lesson, drifting to the Korean store after for spices, bumping into an old friend and ending with me quaffing a Bavarian beer in the antique bar where the friend works. It was one of those days you'll always remember as the epitome of the perfect day. Earlier my 14-year-old asked "When have you been the happiest?" Upon my hesitation, she answered herself: "You're supposed to say right now because you're with me." And she was right.

Intermingled with these are prayers for my 95-year-old aunt who, on a jaunt to Florida, ended up in the hospital for surgery, then Hospice and has made a miraculous recovery and a dedicated Quaker friend struggling with a stern diagnosis and complications.

Today, I walked to yoga, but left early and in tears because my shoulder could not handle the planks. Usually it's not an issue, but today, the pain was excruciating. So much so that I almost cancelled a meeting with my spiritual friend. Glad I didn't because it was what I needed most. She let me whine a bit, then I discussed each of the above and we got around to the fact we live many deaths and re-births. I think she was also saying that I am currently in one of those and I agree. Her advice was spot on: "Think of the circus and the person on the trapeze. When they go to reach for the next bar, they have to let go of the other and there is a moment when they are grasping nothing. I think that's where you are."

The space between life and death, death and life. The place we're supposed to trust.

• What glimpses of life have I been given recently?
• What of death?
• How can I string those together?
• What message is there?
• How have I experienced the space between?

looking back,

and also
forging ahead


trying to
hold both bars
for fear of falling

thinking it is
our job

when we must
just let go

and surrender

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

When God swoops in

Florence convent: God helped lead me here during a 3-mile walk at midnight

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What's the hardest thing you ever been asked to or felt compelled to do? I believe mine, so far in this life, is just beginning. Perhaps the hardest and the simplest, in that I am following my heart, but it's leading me to a more exterior life than I have had in quite awhile... one that, in fact, scares me.

Since I left full-time work to raise kids, flirt with freelance, nurture training and volunteering, I have had the flexibility to deal with chronic issues. It's also what has allowed me time for introspection and a spiritual journey. What, I ask out loud, happens if I don't have the energy and stamina to make this next, big step of taking my nurture work out of a faith-community context and into the real world?

In a surreal labyrinth walk when I wrestled with this question, Jesus met me in the center with the promise that I would not be asked to give more than I would be assisted with. As my shamanic counselor says: "You've got the Big Guy in your corner." He, the counselor, also understood my fear: "Well, you have struggled with that issue before."

Nevertheless, I am forging ahead: beginning to negotiate for a space and applying for a grant ... though I know full well I will secure that space with or without the grant. My Quaker clearness committee for this work and the grant  suggested a partner may help. I agree, but am not sure who or where that support lies. I am being called, I think, to walk forward even in the doubt and trust that I will be given what I need when I need it.

When I inspect my history, I always have:
– Like the time I devastatingly discovered my nurture training in Philadelphia was happening NOW, not next week when my flight was booked, my childcare was lined up and my mother would be back in town. I fell apart but, with my husband's strong support, I was on my way in 12 hours. After three delays, the elder who picked me up suggested that  I unpack and re-ground before joining the group. In doing so,  I noticed I had, fortunately, forgotten only one item: dental floss. As I opened the empty dresser drawer to put my clothes away, something tucked away in the corner caught my eye; an unopened package of floss. This discovery was accompanied by the message of "Trust and I will give you what you need." The bigger gift I received that very day was to know how much I had been missed by arriving late. Until then, I had not felt a very integral part of this community. Apparently, I was traveling on God's time.

– Or, when I was sitting in the bath tub one morning contemplating just slipping away because the pain and violent vertigo were too much. I glanced at the clock and realized Lily would be home from kindergarten in an hour and I could not let her find me. I dressed, then threw a tantrum, pounding my fists on the floor and screaming at God to help me. A small voice said: "Go to what you know." "What the hell is that right now?" I snarled back, then sat down at my nearby computer and began researching drug reactions. It was all I could do. I soon learned that I was having withdrawal from a nasty drug used to treat fibromyalgia my now ex-doc had recommended stopping altogether. But, you know, that little piece of information made all of the difference; it didn't ease the chore of going back on and weaning off, but it showed me just how much God cared and completely altered my attitude.

– On a solo trip to Italy, arriving after 17 hours of planes, shuttles, trains and a bus with no English speakers, I pointed to my map and was anxiously shoved off, completely lost, into an abandoned-looking district. I eventually found that street names are embedded on the sides of buildings and, in tears, not knowing how much farther my journey, noticed a sign in English in the back of a small Italian car window that read: "I am with you" and I knew I was not alone ... not ever.

– Also at midnight in Florence, with no buses in sight,  I began walking the three miles to the convent, praying to arrive safely. I figured out a general path back, ducked into a small hotel to check my map and a kind employee, who spoke English, pointed me in the safest direction. "You have a long way to go," he said. I responded: "But you don't know how far I've come." I felt God's presence the entire way back, returning late and exhausted, but in one piece. When I awoke the next morning, I was exhilarated that we had made that journey together.

When I think about these instances, I am stunned by how much God does, indeed, show up of me, whenever I ask and even when I don't. I am certain there are so many other times, probably daily, that I don't even bother to notice. Wow.

• What is God currently asking of me?
• How have I responded?
• When has God given me what I needed when I needed it?
• How am I able to trust that will happen?
• How can I practice awareness of where God is working in my life?

always at my weakest
alone and frightened
overwhelmed, perhaps
unable to continue

God swoops in
in some unexpected way

and rescues me

that I CAN
count on

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Take 20 and call on me ... anytime

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This morning, after a swim and before I sat down to do some work, I worried myself into some centering prayer. I have been trying to make it a somewhat regular (almost daily) practice because it sets a much simpler and happier course for my day if I do.

If you're not familiar with it, it's pretty easy. Basically, you allot 15-30 minutes to sit in quiet with God. There is a recommended way of sitting (in a comfortable chair, but not so much so that you'll fall asleep, back straight, feet planted on floor, hands on your knees palms up – to receive – and eyes closed) and you may want to do a few stretches to prepare. Often a focus word, mantra, image or color is way in and a manner of reminding yourself to come back to the center when your thoughts stray ... and, rest assured, they will. Keep that simple. Breath is also an easy and natural way to focus. Just surrender to God. It's pretty powerful and healing stuff even if it feels as if nothing happens.

My mind gears were churning away playing ping pong with an unspoken fear. Eventually, I could name the fear and relinquish it. It's the fear of how I can do what God is currently asking of me (open a nurture studio) without the normal benchmarks such as a paycheck and boss. I understand that those aren't meant for me right now, but I want to be tethered in some way.

And I sank into the nothingness. I emerged with a start, a few minutes ahead of the timer, but I felt done. Done enough to read the daily devotion from Father Thomas Keating's "The Daily Reader for Contemplative Living." And there were my benchmarks for the subject was Fruits of the Spirit:
• Charity (love),
• Joy
• Peace
• Meekness
• Gentleness
• Long-suffering
• Goodness
• Patience
• Self Control
[Galatians 5:23]

When I had first done centering prayer with the nuns while on retreat several weeks ago, they used this book and it spoke so deeply to me then. It is so clear where I need to grow based just on that list and even the order in which the fruits were listed.

And today being Valentine's Day, I understand why love is at the top.

• How do I make time to regularly connect with the Divine?
• What happens when I do?
• What do I notice when I don't?
• How playful am I in experimenting with ways to connect?
• What's currently working for or speaking to me?

all revved up and
nowhere to go

except into myself
stirring up trouble
and worry

not the best way
to begin the day

so, I take a breath,
regroup and take

20 minutes to
sit in centering prayer

a mere smidgen of my day
to just be with God

can't I manage to find that somewhere?

just when it seems like a chore
or one more thing to fit in,
I am reminded that it
benefits me most of all

If you want more help with centering prayer:

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Quiet giant

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I want to rail ... rail that someone I consider a rock is suffering. I just don't understand this kind of pain and why it's inflicted so randomly. The phrase shit happens comes to mind, but that does not begin to cover the scope of a devastating cancer diagnosis, stents that break loose creating interior havoc, chemo that wipes everything out and a rushed surgery when a body is already under siege.

It's especially incomprehensible because it's Fred: Fred the treasurer; Fred the cautious and steady one; Fred the accountable one; Fred whom you can count on; Fred who rebuilt houses after Katrina; Fred who has always accepted my wild child Lily for who she is; Fred who makes sure the meeting [church] grounds and building are in good repair, safe and a respite from the world; organized, controlled Fred, who seems worlds away from my messiness, yet always manages to support my half-baked endeavors. We are like night and day. He's the on-the-ball numbers guy and I am the off-the-wall artsy-fartsy one, always struggling to discern my path through the haze of chronic pain. Now Fred has far more than a haze and yet, I think he saw me for who I am ... through all of the clutter.

He and Mary Ellen, his wife and our longtime clerk, have just always been there: when I applied for a scholarship to attend a far-away, two-year spiritual nurture program with young children; when we were purchasing new windows for the meetinghouse and I wondered if we could also fund ministry; when we wrestled with a formal pastor search after God had given us a gift; when I felt called to attend a Quaker writing conference and he deemed it an emergency, loosening emergency funds ...

I don't remember a time when they weren't there. Except for now, when they are at the hospital and noticeably absent from worship.

Tuesday, when then nurture group I lead met to explore a "journey to the center" with candles leading the way to a sacred circle, we placed both of them there in prayer the entire hour-and-a-half. We hoped to wrap them in God's embrace, edging the grip of disease.

I asked our minister when she visited Fred to tell him Lily was praying for him and she reported that he squeezed her hand at that message. Lily and Fred have developed an interesting relationship. As she has outwardly manifested various growth phases in her manner of dress (loud, disheveled and mismatched), Fred has always positively commented on her choices, encouraging her creativity and self expression. In his loving teasing of my wild child and constant support of my wild leadings, his BIG heart shows on his sleeve.

My prayer is that God is holding his heart and hand right now.

• Who's the Fred in your life?
• When have you found a cheerleader who seems so polarly opposite to you?
• What riches have the quiet supporters in your life provided?
• How/where do you find God in suffering?
• What prayer does that spark?

slowly the intimidation of
the quiet giant melted

he tended to physical and
financial matters of the meeting

I, to the spiritual and nuturance

he seemed controlled and wise,
me, all over the map, but learning by experience

and then we met in a kinda funny place:
somewhere between recognizing a creative kid for who she is
and a mother trying to regain her confidence and calling

he's been the rock, the foundation, that has freed me to
creativity and ministry

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The purity of clearness in community

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In 12 years of being Quaker and participating in as many clearness committees, I experienced the truest form of this tool yesterday. Sometimes they have offered advice, caring hearts and listening ears. Rarely have they been what yesterday's was: the chance for the person seeking clearness to state the concern and provide background out of silent worship, lapse back in, have the committee ask only authentic questions without imposing themselves, pause silently again, then reflect back what they have heard the focus person say.

It is a beautiful process and one in which I was the recipient. Too often, in my experience, we want to do what we do in the secular world: listen briefly, then try to fix it for the person in question. Either that or leave it merely at listening.

It's was not an easy thing to spill my soul, but I was unburdened by the boundaries the careful clerk laid. If I laughed or cried, the group was told not to react, to let me sit with these emotions, experience them and look to the Inner Teacher for guidance. Boy that was hard. I cried and laughed, but holding to the rule of no response, except to question and reflect back, taught me things I would not have known otherwise. 

One thoughtful member asked me what  I feared. I said not having the energy to accomplish what I feel God is calling me to. Saying that aloud dissipated much of the anxiety brewing within. Another prodded me more than once to explore this notion of "being tethered" I said I lacked. Turns out I feel overwhelmed by the scope that has been shown to me. Overwhelmed in a practical way, not spiritually. Spiritually I am so clear. Clearer than I have ever been. Putting that into practice is where I am stymied. The group reflected back that I tend to feel over-responsible and that I have to do it all myself. I do know one of my lessons is to ask for help. In this reflection, I could see that, perhaps, a partner could solve these realistic worries. A partner? I had never thought of that, exactly. I have prayed for companionship and community. But a partner with whom to share the daily ups and downs may be precisely what I need.

It's all still hatching and I am proceeding cautiously, yet I am moving forward. I have found a space I want to rent in which to do this work and have a deadline next week with a grant that, hopefully, will pay for the space. This is where I become tethered instead of spread among my small garage studio, computer in the house [or off at a coffee shop somewhere] and classes at my Quaker Meeting.

Clearness, real clearness among the nurturance of safety and companionship, is a rare gift. One for which I am eternally grateful.

With whom can I become clear?
• What have my experiences with clearness committees been?
• How have others helped me access my Inner Teacher?
• How easily do I listen and discern when I want a quick fix?
• What has patience (maybe also persistence) taught me?

sometimes I just want to
revert to the old world,
the one I knew before
becoming Quaker
where everybody had
a way to fix everything

then I remember
that didn't work so well

and the only real path
for me is to plod on,
quietly listening, discerning
and seeking the same in

Friday, February 3, 2012

Where ministry meets livelihood

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Yesterday was sandwiched between a traditional Bible study and a new women's group on astrology and archetypes. Could I have chosen anything more different? One is an ongoing study of Luke that my mother initiated in December with, mostly, retired women. I felt called to join because when else might I have the chance to do a Bible study with her? The other is lead by my wonderful and wise spiritual friend and I would sign up for anything she has to offer.

Though they seem like polar opposites, upon deeper inspection, I find they are not. Both are ways of figuring out who we are and what our purpose is. One centers on the word of God and the other, on what lessons the heavens, which God beautifully created, have for us.

Just a few months ago, I would not have envisioned myself either place.

I have struggled with the Bible, not being able to separate the rote and drilled-in meanings of Sunday School with what Scripture actually has to say directly and personally to me. I have experienced breakthroughs in practicing lectio divina (a slow and sacred reading of a brief passage) and when Conservative Friends practice an open-your-Bible-and-be-lead-somewhere study. The first two lessons of the current study actually turned me off with the amount of pure work in filling in the blanks and charts. I wondered what I was actually learning. But you know, it has stuck with me. What has been especially enriching is the perspective of each of the women. It's an eclectic, though not more diverse than Catholic and protestant, group of great faith and wisdom. When I have fallen into my old pattern of literal interpretation, they have reminded me of the beautiful metaphor and poetry of Scripture. And it has spoken deeply to me, reminding me I am called ... as we each are. It has helped me determine where, exactly, that is.

Astrology may as well be Greek to me. But, because it is so symbolic, I am drawn to this new language. Even just learning some very basics last evening and looking only at the patterns in our birth charts, I was amazed at how much I have experienced is affirmed and confirmed. For example, the arrangement of the planets at my birth creates a "splash" pattern, somewhat equally divided. My able instructor suggested it meant I was a "universal" person, a jack of all trades. She also included a description of my zodiac sign, Capricorn. The pattern and sign indicate I have may talents with a penchant for perseverance and slowly ascending to the top, a lonely trek. What it all helped me see in a very detached and clear manner is that I am often hung up on which direction to take because I am able to do differing tasks. Also, that even though I feel called to ministry, I can create a livelihood from it. That's pretty big stuff. We also learned about the meridian and hemisphere divisions. I tend toward the night, being more interior, slower to bloom and controlled by circumstance. However, I also have "daytime" planets, which means I can be extraverted, in charge of my own destiny to some extent and function in the social world. WOW.

I have been playing with all of these lessons, as well as those from last week's retreat, in figuring out my next move. I looked at potential studio/teaching space today and wonder where my ministry meets earning a living. Before today, I thought those were concepts that could not meet; even not sure they should. Today, I believe I can weave them together in creating a new life and calling, which blesses me and others.

WOW. I would not have gotten to this place without Scripture, astrology, last week's contemplative time, a lot of centering prayer, this week's activity, lots of friends and grace.

• When have diverse modes worked together to teach me?
• How do I open myself to new ideas and methods?
• What ministry may be swimming in my heart?
• How do I feed it?
• Where is my balance between ministry/retreat and vocation/work/activity?

learning about Jesus
from Luke at a long
distance from Sunday school
and in the company of
eager and wise listeners

shows me what is waiting
for me, if only I pay
attention and open
to what lies in my heart

oddly enough,
grounding that experience
is peering into the stars
to see my path, where
I've been and what choices
I now can, wisely, make

a heavenly marriage