Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Spirit of Prickly Rebellion

I'm reading a new book: Brick Lane. I own the book, but it wasn't until after I rented a copy of the movie from Blockbuster a couple of weeks ago that I decided to see how the movie stacked up to the original document. Of course, I have never seen a movie that was nearly as engaging or interesting as the book. This is no exception.

FYI - Nazneen is the young, pregnant wife of a much older man, Chanu.

As I read the early pages of the book this afternoon, this quote caught my (rebellious, discontented, not always kind) eye: "Nazneen dropped the promotion from her prayers. The next day she chopped two fiery red chilies and placed them, like hand grenades, in Chanu's sandwich. Unwashed socks were paired and put back in his drawer. The razor slipped when she cut his corns. His files got mixed up when she tidied. All her chores, peasants in his princely kingdom, rebelled in turn. Small insurrections, designed to destroy the state from within."

I sooooooo know and understand the feelings and thoughts that can cause one to plan such series of small insurrections.
Or to scowl like my otherwise beautiful son did for this photo.
Can I get a witness?

Not that I would ever be brave enough to handle fiery red chilies on my own... Nor have I ever been pressed into the cutting of someone else's corns.
But still... but still.

Deep breath. Inhale. Exhale.

I love the collection of cacti and other small plants in the foyer of a dear friend of mine. On the morning when I took these photos, I was especially charmed by this one, with its fleshy white bloom.
Prickly. Menacing. Hazardous. Defiant.
Flowering. Exquisite. Alluring. Lovely.
Nonetheless. No, perhaps all the more.
It serves as a reminder of the potential for beauty even in thorny places.
In dry times. In tough spots.

I am looking forward to the remainder of the book.
So far, so great.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Prayer for healing

These days I find myself thinking more about the state of the union,
the state of the world, the state of my heart.
Asking more questions. Wondering. Praying.
About foreclosed homes and lost jobs.
About the silent sorrows of those whose paths cross mine.
About suffering, death, and resurrection.
About fear, doubt, prayer and faith.

In those moments of deepest thought, I sometimes find myself sliding down a slope of sadness into a ditch of despair. The slightest slight sends me sprawling. The smallest criticism cuts me deeply. An unanswered call or email causes me to wonder if I matter anymore. When my words fail me, I seek solace in the words of men and women wiser and more insightful than myself.

Once again, Henri Nouwen's words gave voice to my inarticulate feelings.

"I hardly remember what it was, but a small critical remark and a few irritations during my work in the bakery were enough to tumble me head-over-heels into a deep, morose mood. Many hostile feelings were triggered and in a long sequence of morbid associations, I felt worse and worse about myself, my past, my work, and all the people who came to mind. But happily I saw myself tumbling and was amazed how little was needed to lose my peace of mind and to pull my whole world out of perspective. Oh, how vulnerable I am."

For me it can be a criticism about food I prepare. Or as yet unwashed sweatpants. It can be the rolled eyes and deep sigh of resentment when someone I live with is asked to walk the dog.
No matter how minor the infraction perpetrated against me, I find a way to build a wall of protective hostility, stew up a cauldron of vengeful anger, and outline a seminar of anticipatory snarkiness against the offending party. When I am attentive, I catch myself in the middle of the internal diatribe and am able to recover my sense of balance and peace before any significant damage is done. When I am inattentive, the doldrums and depressing thoughts can last for days. Woe is me and anyone who has to deal with me on those days.

"The milieu of this place full of prayerful people prevents me from acting out, from getting angry, from bursting open. I can sit down and see how quickly the little empty place of peace in my heart is filled again with rocks and garbage falling down from all sides."

I hardly live in a place full of prayerful people, but I feel stifled in my emotional outbursts nonetheless. Certainly, my husband and children, my mother and mother-in-law, my neighbors and friends, don't deserve to be yelled, growled, or snapped at. Nor does my tiny little dog. But the place in me where my soul resides often and rapidly overflows with resentment and self-pity and self-righteous indignation, and equally often and rapidly needs to be sorted through, emptied, cleaned, and refilled with peace and joy and love that surpass all understanding.

"It is hard to pray in such a mood. But still during Terce, the short prayer immediately after work, standing outside in our dirty work clothes, we read, 'Is anyone among you in trouble? He should turn to prayer.' Indeed prayer is the only real way to clean my heart and create new space. When it is there, it seems that I can receive many concerns of others in it without becoming depressed. When I sense that inner quite place, I can pray for many others and feel a very intimate relationship with them. There even seems to be room for the thousands of suffering people in prisons and in the deserts of North Africa. Sometimes I feel as if my heart expands from my parents traveling in Indonesia to my friends in Los Angeles and from the Chilean prisons to the parishes in Brooklyn."

It is in the short prayers, the quick ones, that I often find the greatest relief from my mental and spiritual ulcers.
"Help me, please. Help.
Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
All shall be well. All shall be well.
Forgive me, Lord, for I don't know what I'm doing.
I don't understand why. But I believe anyway.
I can't believe this, but I will trust that all shall be well anyway.
Give it to me, give it to me, give it to me, give me peace.
Thank you anyway.
Thank you."

Within minutes, I feel opened up again. Less tight. Expanded, inside and out.
Like an asthmatic that has just concluded a nebulizer treatment.
Able to breathe more easily.
Able to love and be loved,
to forgive and ask for forgiveness,
to pray for others and ask for prayer from others.
My heart expands. My love expands. My life expands.
I am restored. I am refreshed. I am healed.

Again, Nouwen says it so well:
"Prayer heals. Not just the answer to prayer.
When we give up our competition with God
and offer God every part of our heart,
holding back nothing at all, we come to know God's love for us
and discover how safe we are in His embrace."

Added a couple of hours later: a link to a blog about how NOT to sink into despair. Ideas on how to live with intention.
Thanks, Chookooloonks.

And another link to someone who is dreaming of ways to bring hope to forgotten people and places. Check her out here, and consider supporting her dream. It's a long blog post, but well worth the time and effort.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

An Ode to Great Socks

A dear, dear friend saw me in the socks I was wearing the day I experienced "Freedom in Freedom Park."

In response to my hosiery, she wrote a poem - which she describes with these words: "A spontaneous (if not quite laureate worthy) poem for my friend.
Who makes me bug off to museums on beautiful days to enjoy life and love."

Yup, that day began with a walk through the park - which was followed by lunch with my friend (who wishes to remain anonymous), a walk through a fabulous exhibit at the local museum of art, and a lovely chat in the museum parking lot. 'Twas a great day, indeed!

Here it is.

Great Socks

...are hard to find.
Perfect fit
Colors to match every mood.

Sometimes they just get the job done- no sweaty feet in those shoes

But sometimes they ride high- just under the knees or creeping up a thigh
These are the socks that make socks great
Sure they do the deed- but with style.

Socks that speak.
Give voice to your mood
Or shape the mood in your voice that day

Love me
Look at me
Don't mess with me
Want to play?

You wear your socks with gusto
And make me reevaluate the thin, worn out, holey mess that is my footwear

What are you wearing under there?

Life is short
No time to sink down around the ankles
Or ball up in the corner of a drawer
It's time to stretch out!
Cover the ground that we were made for!

And we were made for pairs
Or quadruplets
Or whatever you fancy

But we go together
That's the idea
Great socks know this well
So wear them proud and feel good doing it
Those socks have got stories to tell

Friday, March 20, 2009

Freedom in Freedom Park

A bridge over untroubled waters.

Yesterday was a gorgeous day here in Charlotte. Made all the more glorious by the same friend whose house I photographed recently. She took my children to play tennis, eat lunch, go for a walk, eat ice cream, and then head back to her house to watch UNC play basketball.

I had five splendid hours alone. For my first stop, I made my way to Freedom Park and walked around the pond. I sat on a bench for a while and basked in the sunlight, the spray from a fountain, and the sound of other people's children chasing geese, dogs, and each other.

I was so smitten by the beauty of the morning and the park that,
even though I was loaded down with things to do,
I neither read nor journaled. I just sat there.
Listening. Looking. Thinking. Praying. Breathing. Smiling.

There is my striped leg, swinging happily towards the pond in the park.
Soon after I took this photo, a solitary duck swam past. Squawking.
"I know what you mean," I said to her. "I know exactly what you mean.
Sometimes the best thing to do is leave the maddening crowd behind and get away alone."

The socks earned me several compliments over the course of the day.
FYI: Target is a great place to find thigh high socks.
Not that I've bought any in the past couple of months...

As cliche as it may sound, I felt a lot like this flower,
a newly formed bloom
growing out of the trunk of a hollowed tree.
There is still life in there. Nutrients are still flowing.
We have great hope. A promising future.

Monday, March 16, 2009

On a rainy day in Charlotte...

On February 18th, to be exact, the children and I entered the door below.
That is the front door of the lake house of a woman who has become a dear friend.

Soon after our arrival, my friend lit the fire seen below.
She made cappuccinos on her fancy machine.
I put my feet up on the table.
Ate the homemade cookies we brought.
I took photos, rested, daydreamed, sat in silence.
She and I shared secrets, laughed, cried, and I exhaled.

On this rainy day in Charlotte, March 16th to be exact,
I would LOVE to be back at that house, with that fire burning,
those thick socks on my big feet up on that solid table.
Sipping tea. Or, better yet, lapping up another of her fancy machine cappuccinos.

Talking to my friend.
Staring out the window at the lake.
Finding comfort in the steady drumming of rain on the copper roof,
the scratch of the pen on thick paper as I journal,
the flutter of pages turning as we read.
The children, upstairs, enjoy a fire of their own.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Why would anybody want that?

One of our favorite shows around our house is "Malcolm in the Middle." The family depicted in the series consists of two loving, noisy, completely crazy parents and four sons - until later in the series when they have a fifth son. The children and I laugh and laugh at their antics. I tell the kids that those parents say outloud what so many parents think inside.

For example, at the end of one episode, the parents resolve a conflict precipitated by the fact that the wife had gotten orthotics for her shoes. She had spent months coming home from her job at a discount store complaining of the pain in her feet and back - and was greeted every day by her husband who had made it is his mission to make her feel better. He would cook dinner before she got home, prepare some appetizer and drink for her, and while she ranted and raved about the challenges of her day, he would sit and rub her feet. The trouble started when she bought orthotics and the pain in her feet went away. So she complained less and needed his pampering less. He was outraged and set out to destroy those orthotics. Anyway, at the end of the episode, they talked about how much they loved each other and how mistaken he was in thinking that, by buying the orthotics, she was saying that no longer wanted his love and affection. They began to list for one another other mistakes they had made in their marraige. She asked, "Do you remember when we used to think that our children would make us happy?" His response: "We were just being stupid then." Yup!

In another episode, their son Reese, sabatoged the cooking projects of other students in his class. His parents tried to explain to him the meaning of empathy: "If someone else is hurt, you would feel their pain. You would know what it is to have your project sabatoged." His response, "So why would you want empathy?"

Sometimes I ask myself questions like that.
Why do I want empathy with the suffering of others if it means I must suffer more?
Why do I want to enter into the frightened and frightening lives of people I know who are in this country without legitimate working papers? Why enter into their fear and despair?
Why go to Nicaragua or any other country and take medicine or food or clothing to people who haven't asked for my help or feed the homeless on Saturday mornings here in Charlotte or serve as a translator for someone seeking legal advice for her son who is in prison?
Why care about the soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan? I don't know anyone there and didn't support the decision to invade either of those countries. Why care about the Iraqi or Afghani families of those who have lost loved ones?
Why should I care about those who I have hurt in my lifetime, through selfishness, sabatoge, anger, judgment, dishonesty, or any other my many self-centered decisions? If they aren't smart enough to protect themselves or provide for themselves, too bad for them.
Why would I want empathy or compassion?
Why bother?

Henri Nouwen writes about compassion like this: "Compassion asks us to go to where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human... It is not surprising that compassion, understood as suffering with, often evokes in us a deep resistance and even protest. We are inclined to say, 'This is self-flagellation, this is masochism, this is a morbid interest in pain, this is a sick desire.' It is important for us to acknowledge this resistance and to recognize that suffering is not something we desire or to which we are attracted. On the contrary, it is something we want to avoid at all cost. Therefore, compassion is not among our most natural responses. We are pain-avoiders and we consider anyone who feels attracted to suffering abnormal, or at least very unusual."

Henri Nouwen himself lived a life of deep compassion, spending many years living in a community of the profoundly disabled. Mother Teresa with the lepers and the dying in Calcutta is often looked upon as someone with deep compassion.

Much closer to home, I have been most affected lately by the compassion of the neighbors who have cooked meals for us, the friends who call and send letters and care packages, the sista-friends who hug me and simply cry with me, the many who call and say they don't know what to say, but that they love us and are with us in spirit even if they cannot be with us in body. On their faces, I see the glow of love, of joy, and of generosity for having brought some relief and rest to our family. I see the glow of compassion.

The truth is that there is something life-changing about compassion, about suffering with those who suffer, about providing relief for the hurting, and rest for the weary. Something life-affirming. Life-sustaining. Life-giving.

Why would anybody want that?

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Word play...

I have come across this phrase twice lately. Thanks, Jen and thanks, Maureen. Thanks for the reminder to play with words, to play with my dreams and hopes, and just to play. Life can get far too serious sometimes, can't it???

Here some words and phrases I played with just last weekend. Around the edges of that magnetic board are many others that I hope to play with and put to good use sometime very soon, not only on the board, but also in my journal, in my conversations, and in my life.

A few other words come to mind as I sit here.

A boy's best friend.
Fur face.

Home, sweet home.
Down comforters.
Fleece slippers.

Sweet tea.
Ice wine.
Hot topics.

Text messages.
Snail mail.
Care packages.

Loose leaf tea.
Homemade brownies.
Fat tipped markers.
Empty journal pages.
Glue sticks.
Rubber stamps.

A-line skirt.
Cotton tee shirt.
Striped socks.
Denim jacket.
Handmade jewelry.
Someplace to go.

Divided sorrow.
Multiplied joy.


Monday, March 02, 2009

"Redistribution of wealth" - who me?

Getting my doors blown off by yet another great book.
The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne.
Don't even think about reading this book if you aren't ready to get rocked back on your heels with his stories and challenges about wealth and redistribution, poverty and homelessness, love and service, war and violence, Iraq and Mother Teresa. If you like the way you live and don't want to make any changes that might affect your family, your community, and the world, then DO NOT read this book. In fact, don't even read the rest of this post.

If, however, you choose to read this post, do not, I repeat, do not write to me and tell me that he's just a rebel or misguided somehow or unpatriotic or not a Christian. Don't write to me and tell me that I am a communist or marxist and recommend that I make my way to Cuba to join the revolution. Please! I beg you, don't get angry at me. Remember that you have been warned. You can turn away now.

Still reading? Then check out a couple of quotes that have sent me to my knees and to the local Crisis Assistance Ministry organization with bags and bags of stuff that we don't need and won't miss - shame on us!

* It is much more comfortable to depersonalize the poor so we don't feel responsible for the catastrophic human failure that results in someone sleeping on the street while people have spare bedrooms in their houses. We can volunteer in a social program or distribute excess food and clothing through organizations and never have to open up our homes, our beds, our dinner tables. (page 158)

* (Speaking of faith-based nonprofit initiatives) The church becomes a distribution center, a place where the poor come to get stuff and the rich come to dump stuff. Both go away satisfied (the rich feel good, the poor get clothed and fed), but no one leaves tranformed. No radical new community is formed. (page 159)

* There are many progressive liberals who have taught me that we can live lives of disciplined simplicity and still be distant from the poor. We can eat organic, have a common pool of money, and still be enslaved to Mammon (the personification of the money god that Jesus named in the Gospels.) Rather than being bound up by how much stuff we need to buy, we can get enslaved to how simply we must live. (page 162)

* Simplicity is meaningful only inasmuch as it is grounded in love, authentic relationships, and interdependence. Redistribution then springs naturally out of our rebirth, from a vision of family that is larger than biology or nationalism. As we consider what it means to be "born again," as the evangelical jargon goes, we must ask what it means to be born again into a family in which our sisters and brothes are starving to death. Then we begin to see why rebirth and redistribution are inextricably bound up in one another, as a growing number of evangelicals have come to proclaim. It also becomes scandalous for the church to spend money on windows and buildings when some family members don't even have water. Welcome to the dysfunctional family of Yahweh.

So it is important to understand that redistribution comes from community, not before community. Redistribution is not a prescription for community. Redistribution is a description of what happens when people fall in love with each other across class lines. (page 163)

* I am not a communist, nor am I a capitalist. As Will O'Brien of the Alternative Seminary here in Philly says: "When we truly discover love, capitalism will not be possible and communism will not be necessary." (page 164)

Ouch, ouch, ouch. This book stings. Its truths hurt. It is waking me up from my privileged, insulated, well-indoctrinated, profoundly selfish "American dream." And it is demanding that I make a decision about how I live now that I am awake.

(Middle of the night correction - This dream I have been dreaming and living is not uniquely American. It didn't begin here, and it won't end here. It is a dream that revolves around me and what I want and think I need. It is a dream that lulls me to sleep when so many people all around the wintry world are wide awake trying to figure out how to stay warm, how to feed their children and themselves, how to get clean water to drink, and keep a roof over their heads. It is a dream that keeps me comfortable in the huge church I attend instead of uncomfortable with how distant it is physically and philosophically from the desperate pain and suffering of people in this growing city. It is a dream that whispers to me in cynical and self-serving tones about how many of the poor choose poverty over hard work and alcoholics choose alcohol over sobriety and greedy people choose houses and cars and clothes they couldn't afford over frugality, so it's not my problem. It's the dream that has somehow separated me from the unruly, uncontained, unimaginable love and grace that ought to overlook a multitude of faults and meet needs, the same inexplicable love and unfathomable grace that has brought me to the place I am right now. No, it's not an American dream; I apologize to those who are offended by my reference to the USA in this context. It's not Italian or Spanish or South African or Brazilian either. Although it is a dream shared by millions in every nation, it is my personal nightmare. And it's time for me to wake up and do something about it. Added at 4:01 am, March 3rd.)

If you come to this blog and don't find an update for more than a month, it will very likely be because I took this book - and The Book that this book is based on - seriously and sold this computer and gave the money to someone whose need is greater than my greed. After all, how many computers, printers, pots and pans, coats, scarves, bags, markers, blank journals, sticks of incense, candles, skirts, t-shirts, pairs of shoes, books, magazines, and square feet of living space does one woman and her family of four need?

Redistribution of wealth... who me?