Practicing with Pillows

Problem 1: Your overstuffed Euro-sham pillows get slumped out of shape by the end of each night.

Problem 2: You’re an Enneagram One with chronically repressed anger About. Literally. Everything.

Joint solution: A daily ritual of vigorously pounding your pillows back into satisfactorily distributed fluffiness while thinking of something you’re angry about. The other day it was climate change and an estranged relationship. Today my lingering headache took up both pillow’s worth of anger.

Our society labels some emotions as positive and some as negative, and we’re taught to carefully avoid, or at least hide, those less desirable emotions. Women in particular are socialized to refrain from expressing anger lest they be infantilized or demonized by others. This all is complicated by the fact that American culture doesn’t have have healthy outlets or processing mechanisms for anger (or its close cousin grief). Churches and other faith communities are often even more at sea when it comes to challenging emotions and their expressions; anger itself, rather than actions that might come from it, frequently earns the designation of “sin.” 

So, as an American Christian woman, I’m in for a life-long journey of learning to relate healthily and productively to one of our most powerful emotional experiences. Anger, I find, is often behind many of my feelings or reactions; but once I discover it, I’m usually at a loss as to what to do with it.

Perhaps this is your story, too. Or at least part of it.

Enter annoyingly mold-able fluffy pillows.

You likely have heard the recommendation to punch pillows when feeling angry, but I’ve found it strangely helpful to let my anger out in regular, small bursts, no matter how I’m feeling that particular morning. It’s a way of training myself in the feeling, of teaching my mind, heart, and body that experiencing this difficult emotion doesn’t have to overwhelm or consume me. Perhaps, like gratitude, anger needs a regular practice. That way, we know how to move through it when it arises and tap into its power when we face injustice.

So if you ever hear a “thwap, thwap” coming from my bedroom some morning, just know I’m practicing my anger.

We never left.

The robins never left this year.
I’ve heard them twice –
their light and lilting trilling
filling January air
damp with strange warmth.
Do they know something I don’t?
That the ground will never freeze,
and the maple sap will never run,
not this year,
not ever again,
maybe?
The robins always know.

On muggy summer evenings,
my windshield stays clear,
no arrhythmic tapping
of insects who meet their end –
splat –
on the glass.
There aren’t enough bugs left, you see,
to cover so much ground,
to fill the air with humming,
to remind me
as I drive
that I am only one
in a multitudinous world
beyond my comprehension.

The robins sing
and the insects are silent.

How will I know
when to look for trillium
or when to plant my salad greens?
If the robins never leave,
will the frost still creep up my windows
and seal me snugly
into winter’s dreaming time?
If the insects are so diminished
that their evening songs
grow dimmer and dimmer
each year
will I have to explain
to my friend’s little boy
why his napping white-noise track
is called
crickets?

I’m in a new world now,
but like the robins,
I never left the old one.

(image credit)

Inner Cartography for the New Year

How to Make a Map of Your Heart

First things first:
when you set out
to chart the landscape of your being
set aside every other map you’ve held
with longing and frustration.
They will get you nowhere,
which is to say,
your heart is off their edges.

If you can manage it,
don’t worry about the tools you have
or the colors you carry –
you will find what you need.
Leave behind, too, your previous drafts,
as they cannot account
for your seismic activity.

You are always becoming.

Start with slow and simple steps:
take in one square inch at a time.
Or you might begin
with a bird’s-eye view,
construing the contours
with broad, sweeping strokes.
It matters less how you begin
than that you begin at all.

You will get lost.
It is inevitable.
I’m telling you now
so that it will not surprise you.
But of course it will,
and you will wander wild lands
you never imagined you could contain.
You will find your way out,
and whether you plot
a carefully considered cartography
or simply scribble in
“here there be dragons”,
you will,
no doubt,
Come back that way again.

Sometimes you will start over.
Occasionally you’ll have to tear up your attempts.
And every once in a while,
what you thought was a mountain
will turn out to be the foothills
of something entirely new.

Be forewarned:
you will never finish.

But this is not a curse –
it is an invitation
to toss away the inks of certainty
and the gold leaf of perfection,
to sharpen the pencil
that is your attention
and give it to the loving wonder
that compels you to write
one word in the key:
home.

 

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On Psalm 106

On Psalm 106

 

We move in circles,

spiraling around your presence

and our absence,

spinning from faith, to doubt,

to apathy,

and swinging around

to faith again

only through

centrifugal grace.

Fill our empty centers

with stories of your fullness,

until we stop seeking for signs and wonders

and rest in the miracle of movement.

Saint Brigid’s Feast

Today is the feast of Saint Brigid, an Irish leader and legend whom I have claimed as my own patron saint. She shares a name with the Gaelic mother goddess and a feast day with the Celtic festival of Imbolc, a day to celebrate spring’s first stirrings in the belly. She was said to be born in the threshold of a door and indeed has bridged the Celtic and Christian traditions. She was born on February 1 as both the daughter of a slave and a nobleman, and as she grew, she was known for her generous compassion for the poor. Once she was granted her freedom, she founded a double monastery at Kildare, where she began not only a farm and a convent, but also schools for metallurgy and script illumination. The story goes that when she asked for land to build her abbey, the King of Leinster grudgingly said she could have whatever land could be covered by her cloak. So she had her friends take a corner each of her cloak, and it miraculously expanded to cover the whole tract of land she desired, which included an oak grove and a holy well. This has led to the practice of laying out a piece of cloth on the eve of her feast day to receive blessing.

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Dancing Monk icon of St Brigid © Marcy Hall at Rabbit Room Arts (you can purchase prints in her Etsy shop)

Saint Brigid’s cross, which has been used as a symbol of protection in Ireland, was said to have been created when she calmly wove reeds at the bedside of a dying pagan king. When he asked what it was, she used the cross to convert him to belief in Christ. Echoing elements of the pagan legends, she is said to have lit a sacred fire at her monastery which was never to be put out. She is the patron saint of dairymaids and metallurgists, of midwives and scholars, of thresholds and of fire and of Ireland itself.

I wrote these hymn lyrics last year during my celebration of the feast.


 

Sung to the tune LAND OF REST (The Faith We Sing 2241)

We celebrate on Brigid’s day

a feast to call the spring.

We wait with hearts flung open wide

for stirrings change will bring.

 

We spread a cloth to claim a space

where healing waters flow;

we spark a fire to kindle hope

for light and warmth to grow.

 

We stand between the old and new,

the thresholds of our days.

We learn to love the in between,

to walk in Brigid’s ways.

Death and Life and 2016

I’d been thinking about writing on my depression experience for a long time, but small voices that sit behind my ears would whisper, “People will just think you want attention,” or “Folks will think less of you,” or “You are making this all such a bigger deal than it is.” I am silencing those voices to make room for my own, a voice that is raw and unpolished and a little afraid.

If we had a day for every time someone said 2016 has been a terrible year, we probably could make several new complete years. And in many ways, it has been a spectacularly awful year. The cultural atmosphere the U.S. election produced (or that produced the election) has been poisonous to breathe. We’ve felt helpless in the face of countless injustices: climate change, the war in Syria, systemic racism, etc. Illness has tried to pin down loved ones, and many of my friends have grappled with the death of someone close. I’ve cried about the future of the world during 2016 more than any other time I can remember.

And yet. Without diminishing the devastation and fear and righteous indignation that we feel, I want to note that, for me, personally, 2016 has not been a spectacularly awful year. In fact, it has been a year of miraculous hope and healing.

I’ve been struggling with depression since I was a teenager. It has come and gone over the years, swelling less like a tide and more like a tsunami, creeping up unexpectedly and then suddenly swamping everything, leaving me gasping for air and clutching for something to hold onto.

The summer of 2015 saw my slow decent into the strongest depressive episode I have known. (I touched on my experience briefly in my yogurt post.) At first, I felt numbed to beauty – I couldn’t notice the flickering sunshine on waving leaves anymore. Then, I couldn’t get up the energy to clean, to cook, to eat. I desperately wanted company, but I didn’t have it in me to reach out and connect. Every morning and evening as I lay in bed, it felt like a great weight settled on my chest, a weight that pressed at every loss and pain I’d ever experienced and pushed at the cracks until rivers of tears broke through. I felt like I was viewing the world through a pane of glass, never able to participate, never able to shake the endless fatigue, never able to come fully alive. I saw little hope for the future—for my own life or for the planet as a whole.

At the beginning of 2016, things had gone from bad to worse. Some nights I would be seized by an overwhelming terror. Lying on my bed and staring at the dark ceiling, I would stuff my hands into my mouth to keep from screaming, my body both shaken by silent tears and paralyzed by the gripping fear that, if I moved one inch, I would do something rash about the persistent thought that my life was just not worth living anymore. I felt like a deep pit was sucking the bones from my body, was draining me dry, was emptying me of everything good and beautiful. I wasn’t sure I had the energy to fight it.

But I couldn’t find the words to say anything to those I loved; I didn’t know how to ask for help. I believed those little voices that told me if I spoke up I would be a problem, a burden, an annoyance, an attention-seeking fraud. My worth was tied to my productivity and to my outward positive attitude, and with everything inside myself crumbling down, I worked to keep those outer walls propped up as long as I could.

When I began taking medication, it took off some of the edge, but it brought with it the side-effect of a crippling anxiety, a can’t-catch-my-breath worry that shellacked and veneered the deep existential fear already sitting in my middle. I kept trying everything I knew that was supposed to help. But still the foggy days wore on, and I thought this might be how I would live the rest of my life. I alternately railed at God for letting this disease take control of my life and begged God to release me from its hold.

I’m not exactly sure what it was that brought about the change. Winter ended. That always helps, at least a little. I had my medication changed. I stopped eating sugar for a while. I finished my last full-time graduate school semester, and the unrelenting pace of the previous years slowed. I moved into the neighborhood where my faith community was. All the stars aligned, and the fear that life would always be a battle against the gravity of a black hole slowly receded. Hope grew like a dandelion in a sidewalk crack—not beautiful, not lush or fragrant, but miraculous all the same.

In the past months, I have felt myself come back to life. I have laughed genuinely with friends. I have danced to music across my apartment for no other reason than I wanted to. I have reveled in the beauty of a distant mountain and of a tiny leaf. I’ve made yogurt and cookies. I’ve biked across the city breathing encouraging words to my working muscles. I’ve cried for a while and then felt a little better and lighter when I finished. I’ve made things with my hands and cooked real meals for my body. I’ve imagined a future for myself. Or futures. The paths are wide.

I am ending 2016 miles away from where I began it. I am still afraid, but not of myself. I am still grieving losses, but not without experiences of small joys and celebrations. I am still worried about the future, both personal and global, but (most days) I feel empowered to participate in it and not just let it happen. I still get lonely and homesick and unsure, but I am learning to shatter the walls I’ve built around myself and to recognize that, at the very least, we can all be lonely and homesick and unsure together. I still get angry at God for things that have happened, but every time I yell and rail I am a little more assured that God is open enough to hold whatever I hand Her.

So as 2016 looks to be ending with little hope, I offer this small, personal story of redemption. The change was not instantaneous. It wasn’t something I could entirely control. And it is not complete. Which is, perhaps, the biggest miracle: I am unfinished and growing. I end this year dynamically and vibrantly alive, even in my saddest moments, and where there is life, there is hope. My personal experience certainly doesn’t change the enormity of the challenges we face walking into 2017. But maybe my story can give you strength for the journey ahead—because we are alive. We are a whole garden of dandelions cracking the sidewalk, and we don’t enter this new year alone.

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Let Justice Roll Down!

Today at seminary we are doing service of sending for those going to North Dakota and prayer for justice for the situation there.  I wrote this litany for our worship time together, drawing on Joel 2, Amos 5, and Isaiah 35.

Blow the trumpet at Standing Rock!

Sound the alarm on God’s holy prairie!

Let justice roll down like waters!

Let righteousness flow like an ever-living stream!

God stands against the dark, greedy snake of the pipeline,

God stands with those who protect the waterways.

Let justice roll down like waters!

For those who live on the Standing Rock reservation,

And for all native lives who have been dismissed and erased,

We pray for strengthened hearts and voices

And release from oppression.

Let justice roll down like waters!

For those who stand at the front lines,

Who put their bodies between greed and life,

We pray for warmth and light,

For protection and power.

Let justice roll down like waters!

For those from among us who leave today,

Who go to stand beside the water protectors,

We pray for a spirit of wonder

And a witness of truth.

Let justice roll down like waters!

For those who send their hearts on the journey

And protect the water from afar,

We pray for creative vision

And empowered solidarity.

Let justice roll down like waters!

For those who stand behind the pipeline,

For investors and CEO’s and law enforcement,

We pray for the in-breaking of your Holy Spirit

And a repentance that leads to abundant life for all your Creation.

Let justice roll down like waters!

God our Living Water,

Strengthen the weak hands,

And make firm the feeble knees.

Say to those who are of a fearful heart,

“Be strong, do not fear!”

Let justice roll down like waters!

With singing and shouts of joy,

Set us on your Holy Way.

Pour out your Spirit on all flesh,

And teach us to dream of your reign together.

Let justice roll down like waters!

And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!

And all God’s people said: Amen.

the garden

I didn’t have any scissors with me, so I pulled the sunflower blooms off the stems with my hands.  This was a mistake.  If I ever need to find a fibrous plant with which to braid a make-shift rope, I will probably use sunflower stems.

I was at the community garden plot I help out with sometimes, and I was stewing and worrying about a personal issue, lost in circular thoughts about potential misunderstandings, personal failures, and differing viewpoints.  I had rehearsed completed and potential conversations in my head, over and o
ver, sewing new seeds of fear and frustration with every weed I pulled.  But, even in the midst of my stewing, I couldn’t help loving and reveling in the light on the sunflowers and the tomato leaves and the cottonwood trees.  I felt at home in the light there, even as I worried and fretted.  Why is it that we love the evening light so much?  I would just speak for myself, but it seems to be a universal human condition.

My body was torn between the sinking feeling in my stomach and the euphoric feeling in my fingers as I plucked off ripe cherry tomatoes made brighter by the slant of the sun.  The breeze lifted my hair as I pruned the dead branches.  Turmoil and content wove together.

A return to the sunflowers.  I pulled and bent and twisted and tugged and even separated the fibers out so that I could work on one section at a time.  It’s worth menpicture-220_2tioning at this point that these were not sunflowers stolen from someone else’s garden plot; they were volunteer sunflowers growing out of the compost pile where I had dumped the fallen tomatoes and the shriveled leaves.  That seemed entirely fair game to me.  But these flowers didn’t want to be any kind of game.  They wanted to go on existing in the compost pile, free of human hands and jars of water.  And I felt just as determined to bring something of the garden’s peace back home with me.

I managed to get some of the blooms: five sunflowers, wrestled from the woody stalks that towered above the rotting plant clippings.  When I got home, I trimmed off the stringy remnants of our battle and put them in a water-filled mason jar.  They sat on my wooden dining table, dropping bright saffron pollen onto its dark, shiny surface.  I am grateful – they didn’t seem to regret their conquered position in my dining room.  Is it always such an act of violence to bring a living blossom into one’s home?  And was the violence against the flowers or against my own tumultuous insides?  Or was it instead an act of being present, of saying: I know that not even these flowers will last forever, but I choose to put them in a place where I will be forced to watch them move through time, and I will learn to love each fading petal and each curling leaf; I will embrace the dance of life and decay, of happiness and discomfort, of beauty and frustration.  It was not the flower I had to coax into my daily presence but my full attention.

Somehow, my memory of being in the garden that evening is peaceful and not anxiety-ridden.  Maybe it’s because the golden light surrounded everything and held it together.  Maybe it’s because my situation was resolved soon after. Or maybe it’s because plants must, in some way, absorb all our tension and place it in the ground, buried with the fertilizer and the loam, ready to be composted into something more life-giving.

God’s foolishness

Today is the feast day of the Holy Cross, and one of the scripture readings for the celebration is 1 Corinthians 1:18-25. While this passage relies on potentially problematic stereotypes about culture and ethnicity, it does remind us that all of us carry broken and misplaced expectations about what God’s redemption looks like.  I wrote the prayer below as an invitation to open our awareness to God’s presence before meditating on the Corinthians passage.  And I extend that invitation to you.

God of power and wisdom beyond our understanding,

calm our overwhelming need to know and explain everything,

slow the furious pace of our seeking and striving,

and ease our desperation to prove our own power and wisdom.

Empower us with your living truth,

assure us of your abundant grace,

and teach us to listen for your voice in the lowly and forgotten places of the world.

Open now our ears, minds, and hearts to the transforming work of your Spirit.

In the name of Jesus, the one who confounds the wise and lifts up the powerless, we pray,

Amen.

Dancing in the font

They announced in the worship service that, in the evening, there would be a baptismal service for a member of the youth group.  After the morning service had ended, there was the usual chatting and snacking and lingering, but this time a sizable group had congregated in the center of the worship space.  A large circle of the floor had been lifted away, revealing a deep fiberglass basin.  A gaggle of children of all ages surrounded one of the adult leaders, some standing around the basin, some gleefully running up and down the built-in steps and jumping in circles on the bottom.  Their energy was riveting, and it didn’t stop when the basin began to fill with water.  The children sat around the edge, legs dangling and swinging, watching the water swirl beneath them.

Later that day, many of these children would be present to see a young man walk into the water and be dipped under.  Maybe some of them would understand what was happening – maybe they wouldn’t.  But whether they were present or not, knowledgeable of the sacrament or not, each of the children got to experience with their eyes and ears and feet and hands what the grace and excitement of baptism is like.  They were able to practice it – to feel the contours of the space and join in the celebration with their bodies.

I don’t know how many people were aware of the purpose of the tiny, wooden fonts at the side of a typical mainline chancel in the churches where I grew up.  We didn’t reference them very often.  As a child, I’d been witness to only a handful of baptisms; and there was no way for me to touch or taste or hear or smell the experience of the baptism.  For something that was supposed to be a tangible sign of an intangible grace, the sacrament of baptism did not engage my body in the sacred.

Children are not the only ones who need to touch and feel the truth of God’s grace.  To be human is to have a body.  When God sought to include us in God’s life, God didn’t require us to shed our bodies and become pure spirit.  Instead, God took on a body, and it is saving miracle of the incarnation and the bodily resurrection that we affirm in baptism.

All of us humans are in profound need of an experience of grace that goes beyond something simply intellectual that we observe.  A purely “spiritual” experience that does not take into account our flesh and feeling is not spiritual at all, for it does not encompass the whole of who God made us to be nor the whole of the salvation story.

I pray that we all have experiences in which we can respond to God’s gifts of grace and sacrament with all the abandon of an excited child playing in the baptismal font – that we may join God’s sacred dance in our bodies.