be ever thankful?

One of the most common pieces of advice I see in those “10 ways to change your life” or “5 practices of happy people” or “17 guaranteed ways to looks as bright and shining as the airbrushed person in this stock photo”articles is to keep a gratitude list.  As I’ve said elsewhere, practicing thankfulness is the first thing my mom always suggests when I find myself in a challenging mental space.

What does it mean to live in gratitude?  Is it simply saying “thank you” when good and/or beautiful things happen or appear?  Is it about being grateful in specifics or in general?  And what are the implications of thanking God for good things?  What about when gifts seem to be withheld, or when bad things come?  Who is responsible?

A couple weeks ago, my sister posted a picture to facebook that showed her plant named Roselyn, a gift from a fellow student.  Her caption read: “I’ve had Roselyn for about a year and half now, and this the first time she’s ever blossomed.  I didn’t know she was supposed to!  For once I think she may not be struggling for her life.”  In the picture, the dark burgundy leafy stalks sheltered a small bloom, pink and tentative and still opening up.  My dad left a comment underneath: “See.  We all bloom eventually.”  My sister had not written the words “thank you” or “gratitude” anywhere in her post, but something of thankfulness was evident in her surprise and delight and in my dad’s choice to see a universal truth speaking through a specific moment.

But what if Roselyn had never bloomed?  Or what if a bud had appeared but never opened?  What if we don’t all bloom eventually?  What if my sister’s plant had died?

dscf4911I am reminded of the kadish prayer, recited at a Jewish funeral, which praises God for the goodness of God and the world God has made.

Perhaps we are called not so much to be grateful for things that seem good and beautiful but for life when it is real and true.  For those times when the blinders of our fear, busyness, self-absorption, pessimism, optimism, dishonest perfectionism, all these fall away for a moment and we are confronted with the rawness of life, in all its terror and miracle.  So we give thanks when we laugh until we can’t breathe, and we give thanks when we shake and heave with sobbing.  We give thanks when a newborn wails its way into being, when a loved one breathes their last, tender words, when we hold a delicate flower and when we ride out a devastating storm.  Our stance of gratitude is based not on how well things are going but on how alive we are in this wild world.  And we give thanks to the One who is the true center of this aliveness.  “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he told us. Gratitude is the choice to live attentive to God’s aliveness in us.

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Born again yogurt

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

The new batch with fresh blueberries

It was the smell that did it – the rich, sour, nascent yogurt smell, rising up from the bowl where I stirred the mixture gently.  The scent was surprisingly familiar and held in it all the many times I’d made yogurt in my previous yellow kitchen as well as all the many months it had been since I’d attempted the task.  But it wasn’t a reproachful smell – it might have even been hopeful.

When I first got my yogurt maker, I’d been delighted by the weekly work of turning soy milk into soy yogurt.  It left me feeling very accomplished.  And at that time, I desperately needed something that made me feel accomplished, like I was capable of something productive.  I was deep in the obscuring grey of depression, consumed by both apathy and mind-numbing panic.  Getting out of bed was a daily battle with every protesting molecule in my body, and fearful tears threatened to overwhelm each minute of the day.  I functioned, but only on a minimal level.  Medication eased some of the pain, but I still felt like I was standing on the edge of some endless and terrifying sheer drop.  Making yogurt was grounding and normal and gave me something to eat when my energy was sapped and I couldn’t even contemplate turning on a burner.

Then school began again, with its endless parade of books and papers and projects and meetings, and eventually I gave up yogurt making – I barely had the time and energy to eat anything at all. Every once in a while I’d see my neglected yogurt maker in its kitchen drawer and envision some new, bright day when I would feel well enough to use it again.

In April, the date that marked a year since the recurrence of my depression came and went.  I was still slogging slowly through the disease.  I was still on a yogurt hiatus.

This summer, things began to shift.  The why and how of my recovery from depression, which is still ongoing, is fodder enough for its own slew of posts – a myriad of things worked together to clear the fog.  And every experience entered with interested and strength has been one more mark of returning wholeness.

So this week, knowing I had extra soy milk in the refrigerator, I pulled out my yogurt maker from its new location in my new kitchen.  I opened the box, enjoying the clink of the jars against one another.  I measured out the soy milk and located my kitchen thermometer.  When the milk just started to boil, I poured it in into my great grandmother’s mint green ceramic bowl, and I completed chores as I waited for it to cool down to the proper fermenting temperature.  Then, when it measured just under 110 degrees, I poured the cooled milk into the yogurt starter.  And that’s when the smell began. It pulled me briefly from the present moment and returned me to frightened but determined moments in my old yellow kitchen.  But the present was strong and real, and I sniffed and stirred the mixture with contentment.  The sense of accomplishment that rose up came not simply from a need to prove my worth or my health but mostly from the joy of engaging in small tasks.  Every whiff of the yogurt and ting of glass said to me you made it; you are here.  You came through a hellish year and made it to the other side, made it far enough that now you can make yogurt – because you want to, because you have the energy to, because you can enjoy the smell of fermentation and the experience of feeding yourself.  And you even have the wherewithal to write about it later.

My journey to healing is far from complete, but the simple ritual of yogurt making, at once so familiar and so new, felt like a small practice of resurrection.

 

blessing for the bathroom

I wrote this for a little booklet I put together on the occasion of a friend’s first new house.  The prayer is specific to her own circumstances, but there is always some universality hidden in particularity. 

When you stand in the morning

toothbrush in one hand

mascara brush in the other

staring into the mirror

May you see the image of God staring back.

May you rest confidently

in God’s miraculous creation

of you.

May you fight the pull to be made over

into an incarnation of the world’s expectations.

Instead

May you recognize yourself as a holy incarnation

an embodiment

a gestation

of love.

May you reject narratives of barrenness

for the narrative of the empty and waiting tomb.

May the grief of an empty tomb

and the joy of a risen body

dance in you here

as you embrace the practice of being human.

Let my people go

(In honor of Holy Week’s Table Turning MondayI offer this liturgy of (in)justice.  This was originally a sung and spoken-word piece I did for a class presentation on the theology of anthropology.)  

 

When Israel was in Egypt’s land

Let my people go

Oppressed so hard they could not stand

Let my people go

 

Go down, Moses,

Way down to Egypt’s land.

Tell old Pharaoh

to let my people go.

 

Go down, Moses,

way down to the riverside

that runs with the blood of the mined-up earth

shining oil and topsoil run-off

dry-throated children crouch on the shores

with plastic pails they gather in life and death

and we, the blood-letters

don’t have to watch

their illness fester on the banks of the river of life

they ask for no parting of the water—

only a clear cup to drink

 

Go down, Moses,

way down to the city of tents

where a young girl kicks at a ball of rags

and tries to bury the sound of gunshots

in the swift, strong movement of muscle

sit with her there

and do not try to explain away

the horror she hides in the catch in her smile

give her that cup of cold, clear water

but don’t expect to be rewarded with the return of innocence

stolen by the greed built into our daily commute

 

Go down, Moses,

way down to the prison cell

where a tattooed man holds his head in his hands

and weeps

because he was a prisoner long before he got here

and yesterday during visiting hours

he saw his daughter’s face for the very first time

and he was afraid

afraid of the chains he saw growing around her tiny ankles

chains that snake through the houses of my neighborhood

and end at my doorstep

 

Go down, Moses,

Way down to Egypt’s land.

Tell old Pharaoh

to let my people go.

 

Go down, Moses,

way down to the path that leads to the tree of life

fall down on your knees in the dust of the earth

where I buried my hands and wondered

how can such fertile ground

shape such barren people?

Tell me, Moses, how I got here

And tell me, please, where all this is going

Tell me plagues have to do with freedom

Tell me the price of the firstborn was worth it

But most of all, Moses, tell me I am going with you

 

Show me a God who stretches out her mighty arm

and scatters our expectations

a God who holds our hearts and softens them

to each other

to Herself

 

Go down, Moses,

Way down to Egypt’s land.

Tell old Pharaoh

to let my people go.

 

Tell me, Moses

what do I do

when I discover that I am not in Egypt

I AM Egypt

 

Let my people go.

This hangs in my kitchen

A blessing for the pantry:

Gather in, Gracious Gardener,

a harvest of abundance.

Here,

let there be freedom from fear,

from want,

from fear of want.

We thank you for the land that makes our sustenance possible.

We thank you for the many, many workers

whose labor fills our shelves.

Feed us with gratitude, God.

In every jar, box, can, bag,

place your stories of providence:

of Elijah and the widow and the jar of oil,

of the boy’s loaves and fish,

of manna raining in the desert,

of Jesus tenderly roasting fish

when his disciples caught nothing.

We your children,

even more precious than sparrows,

place this pantry in your hands.

Teach us to fill it with stories and pathways that please you.