What You Can See Changes

August is coming to a close and I’ve barely whispered a peep about the practice that I’ve been doing during this last of the summer months.

Some background facts: 1) meteorologically it is usually somewhere between swamp and armpit in my state during August; 2) I have a geriatric dog; 3) I like to walk; 4) there is a huge construction project going on that has impacted the woods behind our house and begins making an atrocious amount of noise at 7 am; AND 5) I let on to my mentor and coach that my meditation practice had fizzled and the other practices that keep my head and heart in the game just haven’t felt right lately.

So she suggested I do a little experiment. She suggested that I get up BEFORE the construction and instead of doing whatever I would normally do first, I take a walk, a mindful walk, not a gung-ho let’s get some exercise walk, a connected walk. I could take my aging canine to slow me down so I can pay attention and get into the woods before all of that infernal noise.

environment-forest-grass-142497She suggested that there might be things for me to see, hear, feel there. She reminded me how I feel when I am in the trees. She suggested that since my other practices weren’t doing the thing, maybe it was time for a new one.

Now there is a WHOLE lot in there. Yep, a lot to unpack, but rather than do that for you, I’m going to just tell you what I found.

I have, every day since she suggested it, gotten into the woods before the construction begins. I have slowed down; and she was right, the dog helps with that, except on the days he has outright refused to join me from the comfort of bed (some friend). I have appreciated the cooler air coming down off of the mountain (it is technically a mountain even though it is a Maryland mountain and thereby admittedly on the small side). I have loved the quiet at that hour. Well, what initially seemed like quiet until I tuned in and heard all of the birds, the squirrels, the water in the creek, the deer skittering away, a dog on the other side of the neighborhood saying hello.

I have stood at the top of what I thought of as the gash in the woods where the trucks razed the trees to create an easement for a water line. At first I took it in with sorrow. At second and third glance I saw that the children were right and it will make an amazing sledding hill come winter. And finally, as time has passed, I see the grass growing back and the wild beginning to, ever so slowly, return. I am awed by the stamina of our earth even as we plod along so disruptively.

I have stood in that tree-lined space and asked what I can do to help: to help the land that had been torn, to help our country, to help my community. Answers have come. Some were complex. Some were remarkably simple. All were clearly for me.

abstract-art-blur-1038278I have gone from a woman doing the dance that can only result from walking face-first into a spiderweb woven across the trail, to a woman who sees the spiderweb from a yard or so away and slows down, shifting perspectives to get the whole scope and art of it all, the woman who takes the time to figure out how to get around it with the least possible disruption.

I have allowed the energy of the grove to seep into me, wash through, and return to the earth as I walk on.

I have entered the woods in one place and come out another, having experienced more changes than seem reasonable in those short walks.

As my month long challenge comes to a close, I sense that my lesson in the woods may be nearing an end, which is not to say that I won’t return, but it may not look like this, may not be at this time, may not be THE way to adjust my sights in the coming month, because that is what these trips were supposed to do, to help me see.

When we open to an experience, and enter it with the persistence of one who is devoted to that openness as process, as experience, as a moment of renewal, what we can see changes, like spiderwebs catching the sun at just the right angle. We can wake up, even just a little, to everything in the world that usually escapes our notice.

Wake up loves. It’s time.

A Glimpse of Heaven

When I was in high school, I was invited to a Christian youth group. It was held in the evenings, at participating students’ houses. There were college aged leaders. Songs were sung – with guitar players from our school. The kids who went were nice. We had fun. The theology was pretty accessible and it felt really good to be there.

So I dug in.

I started reading the Bible.

I started listening to Christian music.

I joined a smaller group who did Bible study and met BEFORE school – meeting before school is a big deal for a teenager who is already completely fighting biological rhythms by starting school at 7:30.

I dug in.

And the connection was such a gift.

converse-all-star-fashion-foot-1581In that time of psychic disorientation and social confusion, romantic experimentation and disappointment, total insecurity and budding ego these smaller rooms full of people who seemed to want to do good, be better, and talk about what made that hard felt like a balm for my adolescent soul.

I went on a weekend trip to Ocean City. Honestly I don’t remember much of that – but only because it has faded, not because of either intoxicated highjinx or trauma. It just doesn’t stand out.

The time I spent with that group was good.

For Easter that year my Mom included a gospel tape (pre-CD, I am old) in my Easter basket in an attempt to be supportive. I hadn’t heard of the group and when I said thank you with a full understanding of the symbolism of the gift, my stepfather responded with: “Well, what else do you get a Jesus freak?”

That’s fine.

It was fine, really.

I didn’t particularly love the label, but I didn’t really care about it either.

What it DID say to me was that I was treading into water that was uncomfortable for my family.

Part of that discomfort was around the fact that the faith that I seemed to be dipping into had a real component of feeling. A little religious ecstasy was allowed. The Episcopal Church of my youth was not big on ecstasy – although if ecstasy had been around in the 70s I can’t make any promises about how that would have gone…

The point is that the messages I got – or I should say the messages I received/chose to hear/interpreted to be really fair – reflected a faith of the intellect, a mental pursuit of the holy. This new water I had my feet in said I could FEEL God. And oh lordy did I want to feel God, especially if God would love me unconditionally, accept me exactly as I was, be there in times of sorrow, be the friend I could count on. Oh yes I wanted to feel that God.

And it caused some worry, this change for me.

My sister checked in. She rightly raised theological questions: “Do these people think I’m going to go to hell if I don’t accept Jesus as my personal savior?” I stammered, not really knowing the answer. You see, you don’t get to those kinds of issues for some time in well-orchestrated religious youth groups.

I had found a place that was safe, where I belonged, and it felt good. I felt good. I don’t just mean I felt good, like pleasant, I mean I felt like I WAS good because I was doing “right” things, being with others doing “right” things. It felt, and I felt good.

So good, that when the question of summer camp came up, I asked my parents if I could go. My folks paid for my trip and I anxiously waited for the months to pass until we could go to the Adirondacks as one big feel-good tribe.

And then the wheels kind of came off the bus. Some infighting developed. People began having issues with other people, even in the more devout early morning group – issues. The leaders worked to help us find ways to reach out to one another, to bridge the gaps. I really don’t remember the details, I just remember tension rising.

And then the bottom dropped out. School ended. I waited to hear about our camp trip. As the date approached, I didn’t hear anything. I started to get nervous – maybe something had gone wrong. My Mom asked if I had a packing list or anything – an address, emergency telephone, that sort of thing. Nada.

I waited and trusted. And then I called. I called someone else who was going and discovered that there had been several meetings in preparation for the trip. They had all been meeting without me. As an adult I can look at it and see that there was obviously some logistical snafu, I got left off the list. But that is DEFINITELY not how it felt to teenaged me.

I was sure that this was proof that these people were no different. I took it as evidence that this gathering was just one more place where people would be crappy to each other. And truth to tell, in those things I was right. But what I forgot was the good stuff. I forgot about all of the good stuff that came with it. And I wrongly attributed all of that to the people involved.

You see what I was really benefiting from was connecting to something larger than myself. I was feeling good because I was allowing myself to plug in. And I was willing to believe that the force that I was plugging into loved me, saw good in me, would care for me. THAT was where the good stuff was. THAT was the ecstasy behind the theology that, as an adult with internet who can look it up, I really can’t agree to.

By allowing myself to connect to something bigger and benevolent, I allowed myself a glimpse of heaven here on earth. I allowed myself to believe that I was okay, better than okay, worthy of love, worthy of attention, worthy of any of the things I wanted.

adult-black-and-white-blur-257037Today I know I can get that without agreeing to ideas about people being born evil or what they have to do get right. I can have that experience without even having to read or believe in any book at all. I can make contact, I can connect with all the parts of me. I can accept the parts I’m not as proud of. I can accept myself and love myself unconditionally. I can experience connection with the divine, and not even be sure what that means.

It’s been right there the whole time.

All I had to do was believe I was good enough and allow it.

In ill-defined and amorphous faith,

julia

When Your Belief Falters

This sounds like a title for a totally spiritual post, and in some ways I suppose this is, but the beliefs I want to address aren’t just about whether or not there is a divine force in the universe and what the true nature of humanity is. Don’t get me wrong, we can totally have those conversations. I’m the daughter of one and sister of another Episcopal priest. I am also married to a Unitarian Universalist seminarian. I can totally go there. What I wanted to say up front is that if that’s not your bag, you still have beliefs that this post applies to.

adult-blur-burn-783200I’ve mentioned a few times that I’ve been having a tough time of it. I suspect a hormonal element, but don’t want to get diverted by a conversation of peri-menopause, because yeah, I don’t have many words about that that anybody wants to hear. Point is, in this tough time, I felt some beliefs shaking a bit. Some of them were new beliefs – things I’ve worked out, chosen, built up in the last several years. Some of them were old beliefs that I’ve been rediscovering. They all, collectively, felt great. And while I was feeling great I kind of forgot that beliefs and faith in just about anything don’t register at the same level on a daily, weekly, monthly, or annual basis. There is a bit of an ebb and flow here. We wrestle with our beliefs and our faith in our minds. When we decide what we think about something, that’s not usually the end of the story. Old ideas re-emerge to challenge our decisions. Circumstances around us prompt us to doubt. The failure of the world to bend to our will and reflect our cherished positive beliefs can shake things up too. Ebb and flow.

I was discussing this shakeup with a trusted mentor and she asked me an important question:¬†“What anchors do you have for when things get tough?” In other words, what can help buoy you? (I am avoiding an urge to talk about the spelling of that word.)¬†Note that the question wasn’t: “What makes everything better? How do we add glitter to that? Where do you keep your rainbow unicorns?” It was “What helps keep you steady when the seas get dark and stormy?”

I thought about it and was able to answer with some daily practices that I usually participate in: prayer, journaling, exercise of some kind, and meditation of one form or another. Yes, it’s a lot. But it’s also not. THAT is probably a separate post.

The point is that these are the things that I’ve found that help to fill my cup when I am empty, that make my body feel good and my mind feel more peaceful, that bring clarity and oftentimes a sense connection that I crave. These are the things that keep me anchored. And so I have entered into a covenant with myself; I have promised to pursue these practices and, more importantly, I have acknowledged the increased importance of performing them when the legs on my table feel a little shaky.

It is the practices, the deeds, the daily devotions (or routines if you’re more comfortable with that, it’s just words) that create the bridge between ecstatic certainty and a return of hope. It is keeping the practical promises we make to ourselves when we are most connected, most certain, most sure that allows us to ride out the storm of uncertainty. It is the practice, because that’s the word we use right – practice, that allows us to refine our understanding of acting in faith even when our faith in ourselves, the divine, or the world falters.

A mentor of mine wisely encourages people to write these things down: to write down the promises you make to yourself about what you’re going to do to keep yourself anchored (even more structured people might even suggest you, gasp, schedule that ish). It’s not just spiritual practices, it’s decisions, ideas, projects, things you think might help/feel good/make your world better – all of that needs to get written down because stress wipes the slate clean. The cortisol hits your bloodstream and you become an idiot. I guess I should say that’s what happens for me – maybe stress makes you smarter, although the scientific literature suggests that’s unlikely.

That brain wipe thing, that’s pretty much what happened over this last dark spell. I had a pretty significant and exciting list of both devotional/mindset/get right with body and soul practices AND plans for business going into that space and then – brain wipe. All of it disappeared. What was I going to do next? What was that great idea? Who was I going to talk to about collaborating and why? What? Why on earth am I spending so much time on all of this meditative hooey? What’s the point? I couldn’t remember any of it. I broke all of my promises to myself. And I say that NOT as a form of self-flagellation. Self-forgiveness has already been applied. It’s just interesting to notice how it all devolved.

I hit a rough patch, my beliefs felt challenged. That scared me. I got stressed. I dropped several of my daily devotions and I completely forgot what I was supposed to be doing in my work. BOOM. I don’t want to say it all could have been avoided, but I do think the bottom, when I finally hit it, could have been higher… and who doesn’t want a higher bottom? (Yes, I amuse myself.)

beach-clouds-colour-674320I’ve been rambling for far too long here, and I’m trying desperately to bring things to a close, but I can assure you that there is no close on this particular topic. The relationship between me and my faith and between me and what I believe about myself and the world around me is an ever-evolving one. The covenants I make and the practices I keep may well need to shift over time as well. I’ll keep working at it. I’ll keep practicing. When it all goes in the tubes, I’ll try to keep my promises. If I forget again, I’ll remember the bottom line. Sometimes the best we can do is to care for the body, be gentle on the soul and wait for the tide to shift.

In love,

julia

 

On a Wing and a Prayer

aisle-bench-cathedral-161060The church of my childhood used prayer as part of every service. We would all kneel, or stand (depending on which part of the service). The minister would say some things. We might mumble some things back in unison. There was also a time when individual members of the community could offer their private concerns for the group to acknowledge and, in theory, pray for. This experience didn’t do much for my understanding of prayer. It wasn’t something my parents emphasized either. I think we said grace at the dinner table, but it obviously didn’t make much of an impression on me. These scripted group prayers were pro-forma, something you just did. It didn’t have to mean anything. With that in mind I embarked on a prayer-free adult life. If it doesn’t mean anything, why should I make any other choice, right?

Then a book on prayer found its way into my hands – into my library bag actually. I tend to enter the library with a list of three books and walk out with two bags. The exuberance of discovery takes over. The most interesting part about this literary infiltrator is that my understanding of the divine, God, gods, Goddess, Universe, Great Spirit, Gaia is pretty murky and non-specific. And yet this book, by an author with whom I was already familiar, was in my bag. I remember putting it in there in the fog of bibiophilic fever. It just kind of called out to me, so I grabbed it.

My seminarian looked at it a little askance, but wisely refrained from further comment until the book had some time to settle in, until I had time to spend with the book. We like to spend time with books over here.

A few days later I picked it up and glanced through. Some of the language made me pause. It included theological certainties I wasn’t ready to claim, but something in me said, “just read.” And so I did. The book is not really a book on prayer, but a book of prayers. Organized by theme, by human soul need: for when I need strength, when I feel hurt, when I need courage. I read through several and once I softened to the language (sometimes substituting my own proper nouns, sometimes deciding I wasn’t sure it mattered), I could see the beauty of the text.

What was there was some of the most intimate conversation I have ever seen. The prayers included deepest wounds, dearest hopes, admitted failings, and unmitigated heartbreak; disappointment in others, judgment of ourselves, and above all a deep and relentless desire for love and a sense of belonging. It was an extended song about human-ness and the melody of it tugged at my heart.

The next morning, after my kids had left for school, I decided to spend some more time with the book, not so much as a visitor, but as a participant. I looked through the table of contents for a state of mind that sounded like where I was at that moment, turned to the page and then sat there staring, needing further instruction. “Just pray.” I wasn’t really sure what that meant. There was no minister here to say part of it and for me to mumble back my dictated response. It dawned on me that I was supposed to SAY these words.

Well, there was no way that was happening. I can’t tell you exactly why, but my brain said No Way to the idea of praying from this book out loud. Not having it. You can forget it. Case closed. The coach in me thought that was interesting, but the rest of me wanted to get on with things, and there was the whole “Just pray” that I kept hearing softly. I decided it didn’t matter HOW I did this thing, it seemed to matter far more that I did it.

And so I did. I read through the prayer in my head. But I didn’t read it to get to the end. And I didn’t read it to analyze it. I spoke it in my head. I don’t know if that makes any sense to you, but it was different. I paused between lines. I took deep breaths when something caught me. When I was done, I closed the book and proceeded with my day.

I did this for a few days running, setting aside the language questions, just praying.

And I began to notice something. I began to notice a lightening, an easing of burdens I hadn’t even fully made note of. I noticed the arrival of a peaceful kind of energy – a calming and enlivening at the same time. To be fair, as this was the morning, this could all be attributed to the arrival of the small amount of caffeine I enjoy hitting the blood brain barrier, but it didn’t feel like that. It feels like being inhabited by the best vision. It feels like co-creation and capacity. It feels like love and possibility and joy – sweet, blessed joy.

blonde-casual-fashion-18895I’m not sure why all of that is and the last thing I’m interested in doing is arguing about that, but I can tell you that this practice – this practice of being honest about where my head and my heart are, claiming healing, expressing gratitude for what is and allowing the openness to accept whatever assistance might be forthcoming – this practice changes me. And it feels good – not look how holy I am good, but in my body and in my heart good, at peace, connected, more whole.

I still sometimes struggle with whether to speak the words out loud, and I’m still not sure about what language it makes sense for me to use, but I will just pray because it feels good.