It’s Only Words

books

I haven’t blogged in quite a while. It hasn’t been because I didn’t have anything to say. On the contrary it was that I have had too much to say, and have not spent the time to winnow through it. But it is something else as well. I know that more than enough has been said about the nosedive trajectory of public discourse in the last year. I have felt the pain of being angered by things that I have read and have spread some animosity myself. Like most, it has left me feeling soured on the idea of putting my thoughts out into the stratosphere.  I often think about posting something, even something neutral or innocuous, and just say, “Um-nope.” I feel raw at times, afraid of finding out what people are so willing to tell me about what they really think of me.

I was talking with my niece and my cousin last night, both of whom are writers. Yes, you are, Kate. And they both expressed extreme discouragement with what has become of the literary process. It seems that like the rest of society, authors have been sucked into the world of social media and have to somehow prove they have a “fan base” or a “following” before a publisher will look at their work. Or something along those lines. They have to blog, and have a “Facebook presence” and market themselves any way they can to create interest in what they have to say.

So you don’t make a name for yourself by writing good literature, you make a name for yourself by being appealing on social media, and then a publisher will publish your book, even if it is crap. And if you have read through the bestseller list lately, you know that a large proportion of it is crap. It doesn’t take a literary genius to know that. Many books today are formulaic and boring, no more interesting than this blog probably is. There is no deft use of language, no intricate story line. What sells, and this is not the fault of the writers or publishers, is what used to be called pabulum. Look it up.

So people who are really compelling and provocative writers maybe never put pen to page, or should I say fingers to keyboard, because they feel defeated before they start. Most people don’t know how to be fascinating on Facebook. No one even really knows, except Mark Zuckerberg probably, what makes a social media site irresistible to the masses. In my estimation, it isn’t the depth of content.

So here I am, another dinosaur whining about how nobody reads or buys books anymore. It does seem really sad to me that someone like my niece, (who has such a “voice”!) could feel so discouraged before she even started.  There are so many people in the world! They all have a unique story. We are brought to life by story. Story gives meaning to our existence, it lifts us above our existence, it shapes our existence. What words could ever be more magical than “Once upon a time…”? Since before we had written language, our major form of recreation was the telling of stories. And the true ones are always the best ones. They bring out the hero in us. They inspire and encourage us. They touch our deepest pain.

We need to hear from people who think and feel deeply and can tell us a story about that. We don’t need more shallow sites with people dressing up their children and taking pictures of them, pretending their lives are perfect and no one ever gets dirty or crabby or sick. That feeds a sickness in US, it doesn’t make us better, or more brave, or more kind. We don’t need another Facebook page with someone hyping themselves up, we need people who will struggle in solitude to use language to connect us to our truest and best selves. That is what the best stories do.

So let’s just write anyway. Write even if you think no one will ever read what you say. There are many of us who are dying for what you have to give us. Perhaps at some point, the pendulum will swing and we will go back to civility, disciplined thought, and a love for the printed word. It could happen. Things could slow down and get real. And we could be healed of this great sickness that we don’t call by its name. It has increased our depression, sense of isolation, envy, dissatisfaction, unrealistic expectations-and has given us so little in return. To call it “social” is ironic in the extreme. So write! And while you are at it, pick up the phone and call someone! Or meet for coffee. Or go for a walk. It may not be glamorous or perfect but it is real and true and I promise it will make you feel better.

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God Knows Your Native Tongue

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I would be willing to guess that the person who took this picture doesn’t use the same words as me when she talks, but she speaks my language nevertheless. I am so utterly enchanted by this photograph that it pretty much takes my breath away. I personally think that the aurora borealis is one of the finest things God made up. I bet there was applause in heaven when He spoke that baby forth.

I am enthralled with nature. It has become trite to say that you experience God most when you are outside someplace beautiful instead of locked up in a church building with a bunch of people you probably wouldn’t associate with otherwise, but it really is true for so many of us. We know we need to hang out with our tribe and get to know them and help them and even harder, be helped by them, and most of all, just love them, just the way they are. And hope we may be loved just so, in return. And I am not knocking it. It is quite brilliant when it clicks. Which for me, I say with great gratitude, it usually does.

But nature ALWAYS clicks. Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book An Altar in the World, writes, “According to the Talmud, every blade of grass has its own angel bending over it, whispering, ‘Grow, grow.'”

And Gerard Manley Hopkins:

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”

Yup. As much as we have desecrated and spoiled, violated and savaged this beautiful Earth, it still sings to us, still cradles us, still points us to the one who made it anytime we care to follow the trajectory of its finger. This morning I took the dog out for a walk and the sun was just rising and touching everything with an iridescent gold-beyond the fields and trees in the foreground were the mountains, blue tinged with light in the foreground, the farther huge peaks white and shrouded in cloud. And if that was not enough, chevrons of geese were flying over my head, calling, calling, and their underbellies were brilliant with gold light too! And no one seemed to be around but me. Even in this big city, I could feel that I was the only one who saw it, that it was God speaking to me in my native tongue.

Someone said that a lot of paths lead nowhere at all, but God will come down any path to meet us. I believe that. He came down a dingy dark road to meet me, and keeps on doing it every day as I struggle up from sleep, not sure I want to put the effort that is required into living well. He will meet me in the loving gaze of my family, my warm furry dog, the words of books, the stories left behind of Jesus’ time on earth, Handel’s Messiah, Celtic laments, and when I stop striving and wait, in His own good time. This is MY native tongue, and God does speak it so well. He speaks it even in the silence.

“Truer words were never spoken-                                                                                                             you picked them up when you were young                                                                                        Maybe woven in a story                                                                                                                                that goes back to where you’re from                                                                                                         Truer words were never spoken                                                                                                                     and for an audience of One                                                                                                                     Where you’re healed is where you’re broken                                                                                       God knows your native tongue.

Build a bridge with what’s behind you-                                                                                                        the scattered pieces of your past                                                                                                                Build it out over the chasm                                                                                                                         to the Promised Land at last                                                                                                                          Start a bridge with what’s behind you-                                                                                                  God picks up where you’ve begun                                                                                                          Cause where you look is where love finds you                                                                                      God knows your native tongue.

Jesus spoke in Aramaic-                                                                                                                                                  sounds I wouldn’t understand                                                                                                                        In a local ancient dialect                                                                                                                                  for the people of that land                                                                                                                              Our little words can’t hold a candle                                                                                                              to the splendor of the Son                                                                                                                          That can explain this world of wonder                                                                                                       and shine the same on everyone                                                                                                                 But little words can’t hold a candle                                                                                                             all your own when darkness comes                                                                                                  They’re just the size for us to handle                                                                                                      God knows your native tongue.”

David Wilcox

The Answer is YES!

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Today I went to JoAnn Fabrics to buy material to make Avery a “Minnie Mouse” costume for Halloween. While these stores are always a bit overwhelming and hard to navigate, this one seemed particularly disorganized. I already had the pattern with the picture of the red dress with white polka dots on it, so I showed it to an older saleslady and asked her if they had any material like that. “Oh no,” she said, shaking her head vigorously. “A lot of people have been in here asking for that material and they didn’t send us any this year.” As I started to walk away, she said “You could look over there-” pointing towards a rack of cotton fabrics-“but you won’t find exactly that material.”

So I looked over there, and guess what! There it was, exactly what I was looking for, in plain sight. She mumbled something about how it was different from the picture (it wasn’t) and I think she even sniffed with displeasure that I had been accommodated. Maybe that was my imagination. But have you ever encountered someone like that? A person who was paid to help you who seemed to actually enjoy denying you what you were asking for? I have, more than a few times. It is a really weird phenomenon, and it got me thinking about saying yes.

I know there is a lot of hype these days about how we all say “yes” to too many things, and are wildly overcommitted in so many areas. But I would posit that there are far more people whose automatic initial response to ANYTHING is no. They immediately come up with a dozen different reasons why they can’t do that, why that idea won’t work, why it would be a bad way to go. So that even when you are in a position where your JOB is to say yes, you find ways to say no, and are more than a little gleeful about it.

I think it is a really sad way to live. I know this because I have spent most of my life living that way. I grew up in a home where the initial response was always “no”. “No” was stated in many different forms, but it always came down to no, unless somehow you were clever enough to make your case to get to yes. We joke in our family that our Bible was The Worst Case Scenario book, even though it hadn’t been written yet. My father COULD have written it, and then we would have had more money and maybe he wouldn’t have said no so often. But with any request, we had to endure a long litany of all the things that could go wrong if he said yes. And people, we were not asking to go skydiving, or to the jungles of Africa. Stuff like going to a party, or the movies, or applying to a certain college, etc. It was always too dangerous, we were too inept to be able to handle the situation, or we didn’t have the money/time/resources to do it.

I do not know why my father existed in such a universe of negativity. I mean, any parent has to say no sometimes, but did it have to be such an ordeal to ask for or to do EVERYTHING? The other answer was always, “Now if I say yes, I have to consider what precedent I am setting”. Oh, that one killed me. Was he a Supreme Court Judge? Apparently if he said yes to something once, we would have hornswoggled him and he would have to say yes every time we asked to do that thing again. How horrible! I grew up as a person who sorely underestimated my abilities, my smarts, my resourcefulness, and I always aimed way lower than my dreams. I still do sometimes. It is something I am working on.

What would it have been like to have parents who encouraged me to spread my wings, to try new things, to go for it, who helped me figure out how I was going to finance something I wanted to do, who believed in me? I will never know. And of course I cannot blame them for my life now. I have chosen to be someone who was afraid to try things that might be hard or challenging, to say no, no, no to my dreams. To always play it really safe. I believe that is the kind of person my father chose to be, too. I don’t know why he was afraid, so afraid. But now I am afraid and I want to stop it.

When my son was about four, he piped up loud and clear after having endured a day of “no” to this and that, “No, No, always NO! THE ANSWER IS YES!”  It was hilarious, and everyone remembers him doing it. It kind of makes me cringe now, because I hope I wasn’t as wet of a blanket as the one I grew up smothered underneath. But what if the answer IS “Yes”?

I have a magnet on my refrigerator that shows a portly woman in dress shoes with a raincoat and umbrella and frilly hat, leaping into a puddle, and it is captioned “Have you ever noticed that ‘What the hell” is always the right answer?” I really really love that. I am a long way from living that way, but it could happen. I am trying. I am trying to dream big and believe that I can accomplish far more than I give myself credit for. And honestly, I am not talking about the power of positive thinking, although there is nothing wrong with that-ok, I admit, I am a leetle cynical about the power of positive thinking. It is more about just being willing to try, having no idea if you are up to the task or not. It is saying yes and meaning that you will work with all your heart and soul to make it happen, whatever the result. It is not having the first thing you say to yourself, when you think of something you might like to do, be NO.

Because I think when you live like that for too long, you really do start to enjoy saying no to yourself and everyone else. Like that salesclerk today, it gives you more satisfaction to shoot someone down than to discover that the answer was there all along. It is so much safer. Safety is terribly seductive. And desirable up to a point. But as the ultimate goal and value for one’s life? Well, HELL no to that.

 

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Alternative Universes

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I have a friend who believes in a theory of alternative universes. At any given time, he says that he is existing in an untold number of parallel realities, where he lives different kinds of lives. Two years ago he experienced a horrific loss that he is bravely trying to move on from, so one can hardly fault him for hoping that in some other reality, his life goes on as before, unmarred by the unthinkable. I don’t know how he explains to himself the fact that he wakes up in this same universe, full of brokenness and tragedy, and never seems to escape to a more desirable reality. But apparently, he is not alone in his belief and the idea is given serious thought in a number of books and journals.

I have been thinking a great deal this week about the alternative universe that most Americans do live in these days-the land of the internet, and specifically, Facebook. I once again, stupid, stupid, stupid me, made an inflammatory comment in response to a meme one of my friends had posted that really made me mad. Oh when will I ever learn? Must I always rise to the bait? He is someone that I have had many respectful discussions with about things that we disagree on, often coming to the conclusion that we agree more than we thought. We are able to do this because we both have a high comfort level with conflict and arguing about ideas. We have a lot of affection for each other. As has often happened before, when we talked more I discovered that we really are in agreement to a large extent.

But in the meantime, a person who I barely know, one of HIS Facebook friends, weighed in, coming out both barrels blasting in defense of him and his position, really seriously insulting me in the process. Among other things I was referred to as patronizing and disingenuous, and intolerant of any position but my own. It was startling to say the least. I have seen this happen before and to my shame, people who were my FB friends have lit into one of my friends that they didn’t even know, when it was really none of their business. I know, I know, if we hadn’t been talking on Facebook, it would never have happened. So it is mostly my fault. Because I as much as the next person get drawn into the false and illusive world of Facebook, forget that it isn’t real, and find myself behaving in ways I NEVER would to someone’s face. And while I have only once gone as far as to butt into someone else’s argument (sorry Jan Taylor) I forget. I just forget that the rules are different here, in Facebook land.

In Facebook land, anything goes. The more offensive the meme, the more extreme and polarizing, the better. We are all so frustrated by the lack of ability to affect our world. We see events unrolling in front of us, engineered by the media and yes-disingeneous people, and we feel angry, manipulated, used, patronized, and helpless. So we find some clever caption on Facebook that epitomizes our darkest feelings and let it fly like a grenade, not thinking about how much collateral damage there will be, just feeling better because we finally gave vent to the terrible feelings we are having. Through our posts, we “say” things that we would never say in polite conversation. We would never say them in ANY kind of conversation.

These words, these pictures, these captions and clever sly sayings, they MOVE us. But we are moving in what is essentially a vacuum. And yet. These things sting others, in ways we never intend. And it creates hurt, and anger, and anxiety, and hopelessness. Hopelessness because this harm has been done and there is no universe in which to address it and lay it to rest. There have already been one hundred posts since it happened. The person who insulted me knows who I am, but we have scarcely exchanged ten words in our acquaintance. I can’t call him on the phone and he would never call me on the phone because he would never say the things he said about me to my person. So I am left with this bad feeling that lasts for a lot longer than it should, from someone who has no real relation to me and has no idea if what he said was true. I wonder how he feels. Does he feel better? Does he feel clever? Superior? Has he put me in my place? Will he be a more confident person because of what he did?

Believe me, I know I am not saying anything that isn’t perfectly obvious. But I need to say it. This election season has brought out the worst most hateful kinds of behavior I have ever experienced on Facebook. I have taken to defriending all but my nearest and dearest, and have no trouble whatsoever flushing the toilet on anyone who gets nasty. I am sure there are those who have done the same to me in my moments of snarkiness. I don’t blame them a bit. And it is just really kind of sad, that this vehicle which was meant to foster connectedness and good feeling has done the opposite, has become a way to diss people without any pain or discomfort.

I know so many young parents who continually feel inadequate because other young parents tend to only post the most adorable, the most winning, the most special moments of their life at home (and who can blame them) and it leaves them feeling like losers, even though they know they do the same thing!!! Life lived in community, in helping one another, in relating all the bad stuff too, doesn’t lead to this kind of dystopia. But doing that takes time and no one has any time do they? So much easier to pour a glass of wine and sit down with your computer to “catch up” on Facebook that to pick up the phone and call an honest to goodness human being who might really need to hear your voice. I am so guilty, people. Facebook was MADE for introverts. After all, Mark Zuckerberg…

I also cannot help but believe that this way of relating to others is bleeding over into our everyday lives, that people are becoming less kind, less civil, less considerate than they used to be. They have learned well how to let it fly, whatever angry thing they are feeling, and it just feels so good for a second there, doesn’t it? You might not even notice until you are lying in bed trying to fall asleep with a thousand pound weight of bad feeling sitting on your chest, that it really didn’t deliver what you hoped for.

So I guess what I would like to take away from these musings is that I need to stay in the universe I belong in even when I am on Facebook. And I need to spend less time basically spying on the lives of others and more time living life with them! I don’t really have any desire to imagine a world with infinite parallel universes-I like the one I am in, I love it, in fact. But I need to live every moment like that is the one I am in. There are ways to be honest and candid, to hold strong opinions and feel passionately about controversial issues, to have civil discourse and even to learn to listen well. (there is another grace you never have to extend on Facebook) There are ways to celebrate what is good and beautiful in your life with others who care and will rejoice with you. Facebook is really great for sharing cute pet videos, great musical performances, logistical information, okay, and pictures of your grandkids, but maybe not so much for talking about things that upset us so deeply. Maybe a real human face in front of us is the best format for that. Someone who will reflect back to you the best of yourself while challenging your blind spots. I think that used to be called conversation. Not a bad concept, all in all.

Come to Me and Rest

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It’s really interesting to me that when I think of resting, it isn’t the idea of resting from being Judge of the World. I think about resting from the demands of lots of relationships (I am basically an introvert) or resting from physical labor, but not from the hard work of doing God’s job-a job I was never designed to do. I spent such a large part of my life thinking that it WAS my job to evaluate everyone around me, to decide where they stood on any number of things, and then to set them straight. And I worked very hard at it. It was SUCH a hard job. It made me feel isolated, like a weirdo, like I always had to somehow hold myself apart from people. It is very difficult to describe just how bad it felt. It was like being outside a house filled with light, people, laughter, and fun, looking in the window, freezing in the cold. Like the Little Match Girl. Just slowly freezing to death, encased in my harsh opinions of others, cut off from them by not being able to just be one of them.

Somehow, part of getting older for me has been to let go of that role. I realize now that it really isn’t my job. I can evaluate my own actions and attitudes and pray that God will make me a nicer person, a better person, but it never really worked to try to impose my judgment on others. All it did was separate me from them when what God wanted was for me to love them. Because that is my job. It is pretty much my only job. It is pretty clear in the commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.

So it turns out that just loving people is really pretty fun. It isn’t always, of course, and some people are REALLY hard to love, but the ones right in front of you aren’t that hard if you take your job seriously. Well, except the ones in traffic. Obviously the Bible wasn’t written when there were cars and interstates. And it is just such a relief to not have to DECIDE about everybody. To just see them as frail and broken and needing love, just like me. To feel empathy and admiration for who they are and how hard they are fighting their own particular battles.

Life is gift, not a job. It is something to be received, noticed, accepted, reverenced, protected, and even enjoyed. It goes so fast. Why waste it hating people? Why not just accept the possibility that other people may just be as good, as nice, as well-intentioned as you think YOU are, even if they express it differently?  There aren’t many people out there who aren’t trying pretty hard to do the right thing. Why not just give them the benefit of the doubt?  Isn’t that what we all want?  Whether we like it or not, God loves us all, the jihadists, the child abusers, the elitists, the proud, the greedy, the judgmental, the weak, the losers and the winners, and believe it or not, the Democrats AND the Republicans. And most surprising of all, he loves me. This, I think, is what should always surprise us the most, because no one knows better than oneself how awful we really can be inside.

So rest, beloved. Just rest. There is safety, always safety, and underneath are the everlasting arms.

Heavenly Father
Bon Iver                                                                                                                                                                           Ever since I heard the howlin’ wind
I didn’t need to go where a bible went
But then you know your gifts seemed heaven sent
Just lead me to a choler, dad, that’s the thing
I don’t know how you house the sin
But you’re free now
I was never sure how much of you I could let in
And I’m free now
Won’t you settle down baby here your love has been
Heavenly father
It’s definitely lava
Why you don’t carry other names?
Heard about a day where it dropped the know
To go another day as we learn to close                                                                                            ‘Cause I’m a known coward in a coward wind
But you’re free now
You turn around now and you count to 10
To see you go now
Well I know now honey that I can’t pretend
Heavenly father
Is whose brought to his autumn
And love is left in end
I just been up here for god damn years
Can you see now?
Filling up hulls with god damn fears
I am free now
I know about it darlin’, I’ve been standin’ here
Heavenly father
Is all that he offers
A safety in the end
Songwriters: Justin Vernon
Heavenly Father lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd.

P.S. Look this song up on YouTube and pick the a cappella version. It will blow your mind.

One Beautiful Year

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Hello. This is me a few weeks ago at a wedding. I just turned 62 two days ago and I am excited about the year ahead for reasons I cannot explain. 62 seems pretty momentous to me and sometimes I feel proud of who I am and other times, I want to crawl into a hole. I want to believe that age doesn’t matter, that it is just a number, blah blah blah. I feel so young inside, so full of life and curiosity and wonder. I feel like there are a million things I want to do, but then I can be paralyzed by the most overwhelming sense of shame at times, like it isn’t allowed for me to dance at weddings or be silly (those two are synonymous by the way) or somehow draw attention to myself. It feels like the world wants me to be invisible sometimes. And I want to stand up and scream, “I’m HERE! Don’t count me out! you don’t know what I may do next!” I love the audacity of that, but it takes a lot of courage to do it, to believe that you are important and still have something to say when most of the world thinks your life is pretty much over.

I went to a wedding this past weekend. My daughter and I sang in it, and she was the wedding coordinator as well. She was amazing. We are friends of the bride and the groom, but the families and all the other guests didn’t know us. So it was kind of weird for me. It is uncomfortable and unsettling to be in a social setting of strangers without my husband of 32 years. Kudos to all my single friends who have the courage to show up at events like this without a partner. It is really hard work. At the reception I was seated with a couple that I thought of as “older”. It was a table for eight and we were the only three people sitting at the table, way in the back. During the course of our conversation, I discovered that the woman was 61. A year younger than me. It was shocking. Her husband looked twenty years older than me, but I guess that would make him 82 and no, he really didn’t look 82 he just looked so much older than me. And you know, I just couldn’t take being stuck back there with them struggling to make conversation for a couple of hours. They were perfectly nice, but I just couldn’t do it. It was my birthday and that isn’t how I wanted to spend it. This sounds really pissy and stupid, believe me, I know. And I guess it is. But it is just this feeling I have these days that I am not going to waste a lot of time doing things that seem pointless.

So I said “Excuse me” and got up and went and sat with my daughter and a bunch of fun younger people. And that was so much better but it was harder too, because I kept having this feeling like they would think I was an old fart and why wasn’t I sitting at the table with the other old farts. To their credit, they probably weren’t thinking that, but I had to really struggle through that feeling. I think of the older people that I know that just say “Screw that!” and don’t accept the definition of 62 that people want to impose on them. They seem so lighthearted and brilliant to me. But I realize they are fighting for themselves very hard. And it isn’t a simple or easy thing to do. I am lucky that my children accept me into their younger world and think I am fun (most of the time). But even then, the voice of evil, the shamer, the ridiculer, the demeaner, continually whispers in my ear that I don’t belong where I want to be.

So this is probably a lot of drivel that doesn’t rise to the definition of a well-written blog, but it is a preface to the year ahead for me. Because I am going to live. I am not going to retire, I am not going to say, “Oh I don’t do that anymore because I am too old”, I am not going to back down and back away from new and challenging things that I want to do. I am not going to stop moving (literally) like my mother did, so that now, at ninety, she can no longer walk upright and can hardly walk at all. I am not going to let what I think about my age, or what anyone else thinks about my age, deter me from pushing into life with all my heart.

Queen Elizabeth is 90 too, just like my mother. She is ruling the British Empire and still rides her horse regularly. I am sure she does a lot of other things that ninety-year-olds aren’t “supposed” to do, too. And she does it with grace and class. I like that a lot. I don’t have aspirations to rule an empire but surely there are a lot of things I can do, many for the first time ever, undeterred by my age.

I want to chronicle this year and talk about these things. I would love to start a conversation with anyone who wants to join in, no matter your age. Because no matter how young you are, you will be here sooner than you can possibly imagine and it will be good to think about it now.  Our lives, even the longest of them, are so short. It goes so fast. I don’t want to waste the last third (if I am lucky) of mine being old. I am planning on doing some new things that are challenging and I am going to talk about them. I am going to be trying to increase my physical health and improve my habits. I want to be stronger and fitter at the end of this year than I am now. I want to look back on this year and think it was grand. Part of that is making myself write this blog as often as I possibly can, and to try to make it as interesting and thought-provoking as possible. I know that will not happen every day, but if it happens at all, ever, that will be a good thing.

Thanks for reading. I know me talking about myself and my minutiae can be yawn-inducing but I will try to pull a lot of other things in too. Please comment and join me in this journey!

Hotdogging It

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I love this picture because the girl in the hotdog suit reminds me of my daughter Liz, who is a hotdog if there ever was one. She never did like those princess duds, and she has grown up to be a woman of substance and unusual attributes. I am crazy about her. I am crazy about all my children and their spouses, who are children of mine too. And my granddaughter, who is a hotdog even if she does love princess costumes.

Aren’t we all hotdogs? Don’t we all feel like that odd one on the end who doesn’t quite match up with the rest of the world? Whom of us REALLY feels like he or she occupies the center ground and is “normal”?  The great tragedy of modern life is that we are all of us stuck somewhere alone a good deal of the time, trolling media of one kind or another that makes us feel weird and marginal, missing out on real relationships with the people who surround us and who could save us.

I just had a long talk with a friend of mine yesterday and he was feeling pretty low. He was laboring under the misconception that his weirdness was unique, distasteful, shameful, and had disqualified him from ever living a useful amazing life. This one thing about him makes him feel like all the other great things about him don’t count. He wept as he talked about it. And I knew just how he felt. I shared with him my weirdness and it helped him immeasurably. How does that work? When it comes down to it, we mostly just don’t want to feel alone. Just knowing that someone we like and can respect has the same problems we do leaves us feeling heartened and ready to get up and fight another day. It seems paradoxical. You would think that knowing that someone else basically is as screwed up as you are would leave you feeling worse. But it doesn’t work that way.

And I don’t think it is supposed to. We are made for community, comradeship, and ultimately, intimacy with other human beings. We wither and die without it. Our hearts move toward relationship like true North. If we can’t have good relationships, we go for bad ones. Anything to connect. Children who are abused by their parents cling harder to them than children who aren’t.

So much of what we see right now that is tragic and violent and heartbreaking in this world is caused by the want of good relationships. I am reading a book right now called “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. He is a leading practitioner and researcher in the area of healing from trauma, and much of his work has been with children who are victims of childhood abuse. The statistics are overwhelming. One in five Americans was sexually molested as a child. One in four was beaten by a parent to the point of leaving marks. And one in three couples engage in physical violence. One in four grew up in alcoholic families and one in eight witnessed their mothers being beaten or hit.

We all want to think that these events happen only rarely and to people who are not like us. This is simply not the case. It happens all the time, to your friends, your neighbors, your leaders, probably you. The problems associated with these kinds of traumas are legion, from bedwetting and problems in school to failure to thrive in any meaningful way, loss of purpose and ability to take initiative as an adult, violent crime, and of course, the same kinds of abuse perpetrated on the next generation. I could go on and on. These statistics do not include all the victims of traumas that occurred in adulthood, such as combat PTSD, rape, torture, etc. etc. etc. Our world carries a heavy burden of heartbreak and our bodies keep the score. Science now tells us that the very genes of victims of trauma are modified and that those genetic modifications are PASSED ON TO THEIR CHILDREN. Even if an abused person never abuses his or her own children, the genetic evidence is carried along.

How is it any wonder that we live in a world wracked by violence, hate and discord? We are many of us, for the most, part threatened animals, backed into a corner and fighting for our lives. It is probably a wonder that things aren’t worse. Many traumatized people manage to live out their lives absent murder and mayhem, although whether they are living life to the fullest and reaching anything approaching their true potential is another question.

So how does this relate to being a hotdog? Going back to my friend, the thing that made him feel better, hopeful, ready to pursue healing and wholeness for another day, was in part our connection, sharing our stories, being weird together without shame. If in our homes, our communities, our churches and other places of worship, if on our bloody Facebook pages, we were allowed to be messy, in process and broken, and were loved anyway, don’t you think it would change some things? Wouldn’t it draw us together instead of leaving us feeling totally other? Wouldn’t it help us be better? And wouldn’t the collective effect of that carry over into the society we live in? If we were closer to our neighbors and could be vulnerable to them, mightn’t we need to own fewer assault rifles?

If this sounds too simple, trite or naive, I propose that you try it out in your own life and see what happens. I’m right there with you. What have we got to lose? Things don’t need to get much worse before our society unravels completely. What if that didn’t have to happen? What if it is up to you and me?  I haven’t seen a lot of knights in shining armor lately. The hotdogs may be the ones to save the day.

Looking for Home

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I read an article yesterday about Diane Keaton, one of my favorite actresses. It was entitled “Diane Keaton Can’t Stop” and it was a reference to her house habit, which she calls an addiction. The magazine referred to it as “serial nesting” and described several of the dozen or so houses she has renovated, including a Lloyd Wright. The last four homes she has redone have all been featured in home magazines. Her current home, which is picture perfect and which she presumably spent a good deal of time on, is already passé, and she is designing the next one, which she is already sure will not be her last.  She is quoted as saying, ” I ask myself, What the hell are you looking for?” Indeed.

What is this elusive thing we call “home”?

In a song called “Beloved Planet,” an attempt to express this longing, I wrote,

“Now I left home at seventeen
And have scarce been back again
Yet still I’m longing for a home
I know I had not then.

I’ve lived a score of places since,
Yet none has held me long-
Just streets and numbers in a book
My yearning bids me on.

Oh Beloved Planet-why do you make me homesick
When you’re the only home I’ve ever known?”

Why is it that no matter how much we have attained, how “happy” we are, how well things are going, if every dream we have ever dreamed has come true, we are filled with such longing? Why does nothing ever satisfy, allow us to breathe that deep sigh of relief and repletion?

We just celebrated Christmas, in the bosom of family, complete with great meals, good times together, the celebration of my four-year-old granddaughter’s birthday, lovely gifts-and here I am, empty again, anxious, striving, wondering if I am really loved. There has never been a time in my whole life that I have felt relaxed about that. The anxiety at times is overwhelming.

I have, truth be told, given up asking the question “Why am I never at peace or satisfied?” because I know the answer. This is not what my soul seeks-this life, however sweet it may be. This is not home. This place is not ultimately what I am made for, and it is not what Diane Keaton is made for.

C.S. Lewis described this longing as something that he came to call “Joy”:

“I call it Joy. ‘Animal-Land’ was not imaginative. But certain other experiences were… The first is itself the memory of a memory. As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery. It is difficult or find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s ‘enormous bliss’ of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to ‘enormous’) comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what?…Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse… withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased… In a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else… The quality common to the three experiences… is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again… I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”
― C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life

We spend our very lives in the pursuit of pleasure and of comfort-whether it be physical or mental/emotional. As much as I have wanted to lead a useful, significant life, I cannot fool myself that much of my motivation has not been the good feelings that I glean from “doing good” or even “feeling useful”. As I struggle mightily with growing older, the fear, frankly, that I will end up like my mother, lying in bed with dementia, unwilling to move in any way that causes the least pain, and therefore, not moving at all, has become paralyzing at times. It has caused me to look sternly and unforgivingly at my life, how selfish my pursuits have been, how frivolous my use of money, how intent I have been on my own pleasure, and sense of safety. And always, just beyond me, lies Joy. If indeed it is true, as C.S. would say, that if I have a desire there is a corresponding satisfaction for that desire.

This world has become so dark. And maybe much of my perception, again, is age-related. What once seemed worthy, important, good or right has lost its glow. I feel like I am perched on the precipice and I don’t know what is at the bottom-if it is good and wonderful and will propel me forward into acceptance and grace towards my stage in life, or if it will swallow me and destroy me, as my feelings often seem about to do. This is not whiny belly-button gazing I am talking about. This is heart-pounding, throat-clutching anxiety at three a.m. and unable to calm myself down. I am trying here, people. And the dark side seems to be winning at times.

This is what I know, in spite of how little it seems to comfort me. I know, as Blaise Pascal proclaimed in his book, Pensees,

“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”
– Blaise Pascal, Pensées VII(425)

That is all I know. I am not sure of anything much except that my longing for home is a longing for God, and it will not be satisfied as long as I remain here. It is not even satisfied in my closest moments with God, when I am weeping, transported out of my anxiety for a time to a kind of ecstasy in His presence-those only leave me longing for more. It will surely never be touched by any pleasure or diversion I seek. These things only lead me away. Even writing these things down lends only the briefest relief-and honestly, the reason I blog is to find a bit of relief.

I do not know what Heaven will be. Honestly, I am not ever completely sure I will be there. I often feel I might not. Only when I can lay hold in any measure of the immeasurable love of God do I feel His love is so great that He might find a place for me. It is never by looking at myself or anything I have done, or, even more laughably, not done. “It takes all I am to believe in the mercy that covers me.” (Jars of Clay, Worlds Apart)

We just watched the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, which is one of our Christmas traditions. I am always struck by how true the story rings. It is my journey, it is your journey, it is the Quest: will we do whatever we have to do to destroy the evil that consumes us and those around us? I feel like Frodo, naked and shivering in the dark, much of the time. I feel like Pippin, terrified as he faces the hordes of Sauron. I feel like Eowyn, afraid her life will count for nothing and she will never do a deed of valor. And I know my heart is full of Gollum, consumed by what I cannot have, my eyes fixed on what will never satisfy, but which rather will kill me.

I long to be like Aragorn, keeping nothing for himself, loving so unselfishly, always brave, always faithful.”I do not fear Death” he said, and I fear it every minute of every day. Or even Merry, who wanted to go to battle. But again and again, I am me. In that story, I fear I would be one of the nameless women, screaming and fleeing in terror, happy to let others fight the battle, only wanting to hide and be safe.

Is there hope for me? I choose to think so at least some of the time. But it is a fight. And this is one of those days on which the fight is fierce. Who would believe such drama? And yet these thoughts consume my heart. I am not easy of mind, resting on any kind of laurels, smug, fat and happy in suburbia. In so many ways I feel I am still waiting to wake up and live. Maybe this will be the year.

 

 

safety not guaranteed

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We moved this year in February and we haven’t managed to get our sound system up and running so my usual cast of Christmas CDs has languished on the shelf. You are probably as deathly sick as I am of the ten or fifteen songs that get cycled through every Christmas everywhere you go-“White Christmas”, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa”, “Santa Baby”, etc. etc. etc. Why we haven’t been able to come up with any new ones in the last 60 years is beyond me. And of course you never ever hear a song that actually addresses the Jesus part of Christmas-remember Him? All the sacredness has been sucked out of this season and we are left feeling so empty and sad, looking for a feeling that can’t be found outside the wonder of the Story. I know I am not saying anything profound here. But it is profoundly true.

So when I was driving the other day I queued up Handel’s Messiah and was surprised when the opening strains of the overture unleashed a flood of tears and I was overcome with the feeling I had been missing. This story, The Story, is so improbable, so paradoxical, so UNLIKELY, that it fascinates and compels and enchants in a way that all the other symbols and traditions we have attached to this time of year can never do. Nor should they have to.

Consider the line: “‘Comfort ye. Comfort ye, my people,’ saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.” That God would speak comfort to us, in our terror-stricken, war-torn ravaged world, where all seems to be on a downhill slide into the abyss-the natural world being daily wrecked by our excesses, our kids struggling to find a reason to have kids of their own, murder, mayhem, injustice, racism, greed, pride, selfishness everywhere, most of all when we look inward. This is so much NOT what I would expect to hear from God. Comfort.

And how does he speak this comfort?

“For unto us a child is born. Unto us, a son is given. And the government shall be upon his shoulders. And his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Almighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”

“Rejoice greatly, Oh Daughter of Zion, Shout, oh daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, thy King cometh unto thee: He is the righteous Savior and He shall speak PEACE to the heathen.”

Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then shall the lame man leap as an hart,
and the tongue of the dumb shall sing.
(Isaiah 35:5-6)

He shall feed His flock like a shepherd;
and He shall gather the lambs with His arm,
and carry them in His bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young.
(Isaiah 40:11)

Come unto Him, all ye that labour,
come unto Him that are heavy laden,
and He will give you rest.
Take His yoke upon you, and learn of Him,
for He is meek and lowly of heart,
and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
(St. Matthew 11:28-29)

His yoke is easy, and His burthen is light.
(St. Matthew 11:30)

These are words that bring life. They are hopeful and gentle and merciful. This is a King who is not like a King at all, to his own peril. He is like a shepherd caring for his flock.

The condescending of God to come to earth is the most compelling idea I have ever tried to understand. I understand the words of a coming judgment, of darkness coming over the earth, of justice and a reckoning that we all will face whether we happen to believe in it or not. On some level we all know it is true. And it won’t be you getting judged that I need to worry about. It will be me. I know my inner thoughts, my hates, my lies, my greed, my apathy and hardheartedness. Thinking that those things will be laid bare between me and the God of the universe should make me tremble. Anyone with a conscience would tremble.

The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple,
even the messenger of the Covenant, whom ye delight in;
behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of Hosts.
(Malachi 3:1)

But who may abide the day of His coming,
and who shall stand when He appeareth?
For He is like a refiner’s fire.
(Malachi 3:2)

And He shall purify the sons of Levi,
that they may offer unto the Lord
an offering in righteousness.
(Malachi 3:3)

These are all verses from the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures. That bears thinking about. Most of the theology we have about Jesus comes from Old Testament prophecies about him, of which there are seven hundred or so that his life fulfilled to a “T”. The New Testament is full of quotes from the Old Testament spoken in reference to Jesus that were fulfilled through events in his earthly life. The two testaments are seamless in presenting a story of a God who never blinks or fails to acknowledge our sins and failures, and never flags in offering mercy, grace and relationship if we acknowledge them as well.

He is not content to leave us wallowing in a blurry miasma of “I’m OK, You’re OK” either. He shall “purify us that we may make an offering in righteousness”. This is one of the great paradoxes of the Christian faith, the one that separates us as believers and continually confuses all who have never bothered to seriously examine the faith.

God who is a tender shepherd carrying us around his neck like little lambs, who suffered through life on this broken planet and a horrific death to make us right with him, who calls himself a mother hen gathering her chicks under him, also wants to refine us. This is the paradigm that Handel so masterfully and magnificently expresses in his music, and the “two sides of the story” just really stood out to me this year.

If I know the love of God, how long and high and deep and wide, then I can stand to think about him refining me. It stops feeling like someone wants to crush me and starts feeling like someone wants to free me from the ugliness of sin.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who was arrested, imprisoned and executed for his part in a plot to assassinate Hitler, wrote:

“We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, THAT THE GOD OF THE WORLD DRAWS NEAR TO THE PEOPLE OF OUR LITTLE EARTH AND LAYS CLAIM TO US. (emphasis mine) The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.

Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us, with grace and love. God makes us happy as only children can be happy. God wants to always be with us wherever we may be-in our sin, in our suffering and death. We are no longer alone; God is with us. We are no longer homeless; a bit of the eternal home itself has moved unto us. Therefore we adults can rejoice deeply within our hearts under the Christmas tree, perhaps much more  than the children are able. We know God’s goodness will once again draw near. We  think of all of God’s goodness that came our way last year and sense something of this marvelous home. Jesus comes in judgment AND grace: ” Behold I stand at the door…open wide the gates!” (Psalm 24:7)”

I know that the particular brew of listening to Handel’s Messiah and reading these profound words of Bonhoeffer has affected me in a way that it will probably not affect you, especially if the music is not familiar to you, or indeed playing in the background as you read this. I know this post is probably a little boring or simplistic or for a lot of you, something you have thought about many times and heard expressed much more eloquently.

But I am tired. I am tired of the triteness not only of our thoroughly secularized Christmas but also of our bland and repetitive modern worship music, which lacks the paradox, the complexity, and the awe of a Handel’s Messiah. We have drawn away from our image of God all dimensions but one-the bland Santa Claus God who loves us no matter what and wants to give us all the stuff we ask him for.

If you have no sense of the mystery of God, of your utter inability to comprehend Him-and why would anyone be able to comprehend the totally OTHERness of God?- then there is a failure of imagination and of perceiving the truth of the matter. If the Christmas story has become insipid and merely pleasant to you-a side dish to the main feast of food, folks and fun-then I recommend a healthy dose of Handel. This miraculous and beloved oratorio was written in a mere three to four weeks. Audiences still rise to their feet at the opening strains of the Hallelujah Chorus. I have spent an entire week in my car running around doing errands and weeping as its strains filled my car with glory. It has once again restored to me the true wonder of Christmas-that God stuffed his glory into a tiny cell, became so small as to be invisible-to become the enigma that informs every enigma we now encounter, every bit of suffering, every bit of joy. Emanuel. God is WITH us. I will never understand it and I am only grateful when the wonder of it captures my soul, and lifts me up once again.

 

The Longest Night of the Year

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Funny, I looked through all my photos, thousands of them, to find a picture that I had taken of this time of year, the short day and long night time of year, and I don’t have one. This shouldn’t surprise me, as I inevitably find myself overcome with a kind of quiet grief as the year winds down and the days telescope into a few brief hours. The sun just went down behind my beautiful Rockies at 4:15. We still have two weeks to go until the shortest day of the year.

I know that a large part of what I feel is the strange interworking of hormones in my brain-my body is reacting to the lack of daylight, just as animals react by growing thick winter coats and plants react by going into dormancy. Maybe they feel depressed too. It is so paradoxical that at this time, when Americans seem to desperately ramp up for “the holiday season”, all of nature is withdrawn, quiescent, dark and cold.

I am so weary of it all, really, the whole “Christmas” thing. My family gets tired of hearing me whine about it, I’m sure. When I became “The Mom” I assumed an unbearable load of making Christmas as magical and excessive as all the movies would have you believe it should be. Not such a task when your kids are small and their toys are inexpensive! But my own act has become the one I cannot follow, and I have come to approach this season with dread. My children are so kind, looking me deeply in the eye and telling me I am off the hook. They really mean it. But what I remember is the disappointment I often felt at Christmas, how it never measured up to my dreams and desires, and this is what drives me to try so hard, and as the years have gone on, to feel so painfully stressed.

Can’t we stop? I mean, really, who can afford this dream? And the dream lies, because no child of any age can be satisfied by stuff. It just can’t do it. And yet at this time of year, the lie is that it can. So the afternoon of December 25th, no matter how wretched your excess, is a time of secret disappointment, because all the windup is over, the tree looks like a carcass, and tomorrow will be just another day. Another day of woeful news stories, killings and war, terror in every heart, the utter pathos of this broken ravaged world. Oh, and credit card bills that are so much bigger than you planned.

It doesn’t seem like a mistake to me that the tradition developed that Jesus was born at the very darkest time of the year. I don’t know when he was really born and I don’t suppose anyone really does, but here we are, and the child in the rough and dirty stable didn’t do it for us, so we made this, this THING out of it, and now, of course, we have grown out of calling it Christmas and it has officially nothing more to do with the Christ. All the real meaning has been squeezed out of it in favor of Zales diamonds and toys and Santa Claus.

But still, in the stillness, in the poverty and brokenness of a raging war-torn world, the Christ comes. In the darkness, like a secret, He comes. He isn’t flashy or famous or rich, he doesn’t grab the microphone, he doesn’t demand his fifteen minutes. Many many people don’t even notice him at all. And of course, in our country, all the crazies get the press so He is now associated with people that are so self-righteous, so judgmental, so unpleasant, that…oh, wait a minute, the religious people of his day were exactly the same. He didn’t like them much either.

I want to sink into this dark time of the year and embrace its truth: nothing that this world has to offer can satisfy this raging need in my soul. I try again and again, and it never works. You know, I hate those lights that look like they are frantically running along a maze like rats looking for a reward. I hate the laser lights that change every five seconds like TV commercials. God help us, we have infused this time, when we could be still and peaceful and receptive, and pregnant, for crying out loud, with noise and movement and meaningless “celebration” that celebrates nothing. It just gives us something we have to recover from in January, when winter REALLY comes.

So I will feel this grief. I will mourn over the world, so filled with darkness and hatred and alienation. I will stop trying to fill the void in my children that nothing material can fill. I will watch the sun set earlier and earlier and I will light a still quiet candle and think about hope. I read a blog today by my friend Tim, who is a doctor in Angola, and is faced daily with a population who has no hope for enough food and water, much less medicine, education, and anything like material prosperity. They have no trouble focusing on the hope of Christ, of a world to come. There is no hope for them here and they know it. Would that I would know it too. In the dark days of December, when the world seems to be shutting down for business, (in spite of all our denial), I can hope. And it will fill me.