Sunday, November 25, 2012

Three Essential Prayers

I haven’t read Anne Lamott’s Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers yet, but I heard some of RenĂ©e Montagne’s interview with her on NPR a few days ago. I think Anne is a genius. Here is what she said in the interview:

“Help: People say ‘help' without actually believing anything hears that. But it is the great prayer, and it is the hardest prayer, because you have to admit defeat — you have to surrender, which is the hardest thing any of us do, ever.

“Thanks (full prayer is thank you thank you thank you thank you): It's amazement and relief that you caught a break; that your family caught a break; that you didn't have any reason to believe that things were really going to be OK, and then they were and you just can't help but say thank you.

“Wow: The prayer where we're finally speechless ... When we don't know what else to do we go outside, and we see the sky and the trees and a bird flies by, and our mouth drops open again with wonder at the just sheer beauty of creation. And we say, 'Wow.' …”

I am not a pray-er, not in the sit and talk to God sense, rambling words on and on. But I do think I am in prayer most of the time. Nothing against those who find comfort in talking things out with God, I just don’t. I believe our lives are a constant prayer that some entity hears. As you have heard me express before, my favorite name for that Essence is Barbara Brown Taylor’s “One Who is More.” I fully believe there is something bigger than me, than us, out there in the Universe and within each one of us and in all of us communally. It doesn’t matter by what name we call it, but please, let it be so, because we are not nearly big enough.

I was awake last night for a good while, and the three prayers came into my head and swirled and swirled there. It was good thinking time. I wish it hadn’t been in the middle of the night; sometimes that’s all we have. I thought about times this week I have said these prayers.

On Wednesday I came within an inch of ramming into my mother’s caregiver’s car when I backed out of the carport. I don’t know what made me look into the rearview mirror just in time to slam on the brakes. Then I just sat there for long seconds and said, “Thank you thank you thank you thank you.” And then I said it again as I pulled forward and adjusted the wheels to back up again clear of the car.

I don’t attribute God to my glance into the mirror at just the right moment. I don’t think God works that way. Otherwise why would a young father taking his child to kindergarten one morning not be guided to look into the mirror in time to change lanes before the semi behind him on the interstate plowed full speed into his car? I am not more worthy than he, and the consequences of my inattention were much much smaller. When I said “Thank you thank you thank you thank you” that last year’s tornado missed my house in Raleigh by less than half a mile, I wasn’t really thanking God for sparing me. It damaged dozens of houses of people God cares about just as much as She cares for me. I think we just send gratitude into the Universe and trust that it is heard. Because we need to express gratitude.

Mt. St. Helens hasn’t been visible for many days. But when I woke up on Thanksgiving morning, the rays of the rising sun was turning the sky behind the exposed mountain the color of sunflower petals. The rest of the sky over the valley was gray. That is what I woke up to on the official day of thanks. I just sat in my bed and said “wow!” Over and over. Then I said the second great prayer, “Thank you thank you thank you thank you” that I get to live in this amazing place right now. Then I said, “wow!” again.

The sky overhead remained gray all day, only the swath of sky on the eastern horizon was clear, the snowy white mountain standing in relief. The next day all was hidden again. Did God create the sunrise? Did God hide the mountain for days while wrapping it in snow then present it just to me tied in a yellow sunflower ribbon? I believe in atmospheric conditions. I don’t believe God creates beauty and controls its occurrences and who gets to see it, any more than God creates tornados and earthquakes and hurricanes and tsunamis and floods and sends them to destroy some people but not others. But I appreciate the power of the Universe, and the One who created the Universe. Something deserves our awe, and so I say “Wow!” to the One Who is More. Because we need to express wonder.

As Anne Lamott says, the first prayer is the hardest. “Help.” It requires surrender, and that is nearly impossible. We want to keep believing that we can conquer whatever it is dragging us under. Or we want to believe that it is someone else’s fault or responsibility that we are in this mess and therefore there’s nothing we can do to fix it. As if it's not ours to surrender, so we just stay in the stew. Or maybe, having gotten ourselves into the hole, we think we don’t deserve to ask for help.

There are many times I should have prayed this prayer, but I only remember one. I was a junior in college in the midst of a crisis of faith. The thought that there is no bigger being than I, was scaring the shit out of me. And leaving me bereft and alone. And yet it had come to seem so absurd: believing in God, mysticism, the unexplainable. No Santa Claus, and now no God. After months of gathering despair, I lay down on my dorm room bed one afternoon and sobbed. And I let go. I surrendered. I said, “Help.” In that moment a presence soft and light as a blanket of cloud wrapped around me and, without touching me, held me close. The touch said, “I am here.” I lay motionless, afraid it would go away. I felt loved and safe. In that moment, I knew I did not have to understand. The One Who is More does not require that we comprehend; only that we have faith. That we have faith, even when faith is impossible. Especially when faith is impossible. In her sermon last Sunday, Nancy Petty, (Pullen Baptist Church, Raleigh) telling the story of Hannah, said, “Hannah went to the limits of holding on, and when she couldn’t hold on any longer she had the wisdom to let go.” Hannah had faith, until she had used it all up. Then she let go, and went deeper. She opened herself to a faith that she could not access by herself, and offered her sorrow up in surrender.

Friday my yoga teacher said, “It’s not how deep you go, it’s how you go deep.” Go deep with intention. Go deep with the surrender of “help,” the gratitude of “thanks,” the delight of “wow!” I don’t know what more Anne Lamott says about the three essential prayers-I look forward to reading her book-but I am grateful for her wisdom.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Cozy Connections

I send a text message to a group of friends this week with a photo of my Wednesday latte. Katie writes right back saying that being loved from places all over the world “makes the planet feel cozy.” That made me feel warm and loved, and cozy.

Technology does make the planet feel cozy. Except when it makes it sad and scary. Like the news on TV and radio yesterday of fighting over Gaza (again). And a school bus accident in Egypt that killed dozens of kindergarten children. But there’s a baby elephant about to be born in Portland after a two year pregnancy, and a nearby highway repaving project has been delayed for fear the vibrations might disturb the sensitive mama. The news story mentions the 1962 birth at the Portland zoo of Packy. I remember that! Childhood suddenly seems less distant.

Also this weekend:
  • “The leaders of China and long-time rival Taiwan had rare direct political contact after Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou sent congratulatory messages to China's new and outgoing Communist Party leaders, Xi Jinping and Hu Jintao. 'Looking towards the future…’” 

  • “60 per cent of the largest US cities now have smoke-free laws.” 

  • “Everyday life [in Iraq] is showing signs of becoming more stable, and the government says it can now look again to funding the arts.” 

  • “A positive cycle of enterprise financing and increasing citizen empowerment is slowly improving Africa's economic prospects and reducing poverty.”
  • “Moscow's new Jewish museum is Europe's largest and Russia's first major attempt to tell the story of its Jewish community.”
  • “A report, by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), found 61 per cent of Chinese consumers would pay more for a product made in the United States.”
You can actually Google “good news from around the world.” Somehow the stories don't make it onto the mainstream newsfeed, but the internet can make the world feel cozy, and not like such a bad planet.

I met a family member by marriage at a family reunion a couple years back who lives in Hungary, and is Hungarian. I see her on FaceBook. I read about the lives of cousins on FaceBook, too, who would just be names on the family tree. While we may not agree politically or religiously, I love virtually knowing them and their children, and celebrate difference and blood ties. I am not an island. I chat online in real time across time zones with friends and family in North Carolina, Illinois, Virginia, and Colorado, and in Seattle. I recently connected on chat, unexpectedly (it's always unexpected), with my childhood friend and neighbor from 45 years ago. I have friends who play scrabble-type word games with friends online. I might join them, except I suck at word games. Say what you will, the internet can connect people who otherwise would not be connecting.

I am continuing, for now, to create the newsletter for my previous employer, remotely. I am grateful to live in the age of technology. Because I don’t have the computer program I need on my Mac, however, I use the neighbor’s computer. No one ever brought me tea and cookies while I did it on-site. It made me feel all warm inside.

My sister and her beautiful shop “HUBBUB” celebrate their seventh anniversary this week. I am so proud of her. One of our friends buys a scarf I made a couple of years ago. I sat on my yellow sofa on a chilly winter evening, my legs covered with the shawl my other sister knit for me, a cat on my lap and a fire in the fireplace and candles on the mantle; and I knit that multi-colored scarf. I had no idea back then that two years later I would live on the other side of the country and sell the scarf to a new friend. I made several other scarves that winter, scarves that have been gifted or sold by me in North Carolina, or by my sister in Washington. I don’t know if they were kept by the buyer or given away as gifts. But I knit my story into those scarves. Across the continent, and who knows where else, people wrap my story around them. They aren't aware of it, but we are cozily connected.

I wake up one morning this week to a photograph of my five-month-old grandson on my phone. His mama wrote, on his behalf, “Good morning, Gigi! Love you!” Makes my day cozy, and every time I open my phone I smile and virtually squeeze his adorable little plumpness.

As I write this Saturday evening, it is raining on the roof, and on the garden, at my new home. My sister’s afghan is over my legs, and my mother is in the chair next to me. I am living with another human for the first time in almost nine years.
Friend Laura, three time zones away and up late, just popped up on FaceBook chat for a couple of minutes. I now know she is exhausted from a leak under her house, precipitating digging a new drain. I got to wish her a good sleep. Soon I will go downstairs to my cat and my cozy chair that my dear friend Dori gave me when she moved away from physical proximity. I am glad she is still close by via the internet, and her chair. It is cozy in the garden.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Time Between

I was born the middle child in my five-member family; the one between the two outliers. It is an honored place. I had more opportunity to know both of my sisters growing up than they had to know each other. And besides, everyone knows middle children are the best. At least middle children know that.

I am the middle generation of the five with whom I have occupied the planet over some portion of my 60 years. All the greats and grands are gone now; and only four remain of the second generation, all over 90 years of living and one over 100. The fourth generation is complete, and the fifth is multiplying. It is the circle of life.

Autumn is morphing into winter. The season between is coming. The job of the trees is to let go of the effort of green, red, yellow, orange; to let go of their leaves and succumb to the nakedness between flashy fall and bursting spring. There is frost on the car Friday night, when I leave a local theater production; and the Saturday morning temperature is below freezing. I sleep with the windows closed for the first time since I arrived here in early July. When I leave yoga on Friday, a favorite brief view of Mt. Rainier from the highway reveals a new blanket of sparkling white-cold against the blue sky backdrop.

It’s an in between time in our country, too. We reelected a president, which eliminated the time between adminis- trations; but we took a big step toward ending another bastion of discrim- ination. Three states became the first to grant by popular vote, marriage equality to all; a fourth voted down a constitutional amendment that would ban those rights. It’s an in between time. To proponents, while jubilant, it is agonizingly slow work. To opponents, it is frightening. It is divisive. It is uncomfortable.

I exchanged emails this week with a young friend at an in between time she is finding uncom- fortable. She tells me that in her hot yoga class (not something I aspire to) the teacher tells them that the mini-rests between the intense strength-building and energy-exerting poses are not supposed to be comfortable, only still. A time to observe where the pain is and notice its easing as the yogi works it out.
I am between; not for the first time. I have had my flashy falls and bursting springs, along with some passionate summers. I expect there will be more. But right now I am heading into winter. My mother asks me Saturday morning what the weather forecast is for the beginning of the week. I have no idea. I can’t look that far ahead these days. My living tomorrow depends on what, that is beyond my control, happens today. Perhaps this time of stillness I am in, like winter, is not meant to be comfortable. But, as in those little between moments in yoga, this time in my life is an opportunity to notice the places of pain among the places of beauty; and to work them out.

It’s not a bad thing, this time in between. I am exploring my inner landscape. Which reminds me, yoga was much better this week; I felt like I challenged my muscles. We did gate, lunges, plank, chaturanga (well, I kind of added that last one) for the first time in this class. So many more poses we haven’t done, but it’s a start. I left the studio with that “I have done a good thing for my body and for my inner landscape” feeling that has been missing since I left Julie’s yoga classes at the Raleigh YMCA. It reminds me that I need to get more yoga into my weeks. If we are not finding that sense of well-being someplace in our life, we need to adjust.

After doing reclining twists and returning to stillness on our back, the teacher tells us, in preparation for savasana (the resting pose that completes our practice), to lift our sacrum just an inch and resettle back into alignment. The word sacrum comes from the Latin “sacer,” which means sacred. I wonder, is the time between our preparation for what comes next, our sacred time of realigning and rebalancing our lives? Are we making space for the time between? Are we taking time to settle into it?

I was informed by my friend Vee who keeps me apprised, that Mercury is in retrograde right now; an event that happens several times a year, when Mercury appears to be turning backward. Gemini and Virgo are signs ruled by Mercury, so if you were born during those months-and I am a Gemini-you will be complaining especially loudly of stuff going haywire. Why would the Universe give us Mercury retrograde? Because to move forward it is sometimes necessary to back up and reconsider, repair, reflect, and reconnect. Mercury forces us to slow down and rethink things.

I treat myself, finally, to a massage this weekend. After a week with an aching back, I finally make the appointment. Immediately after the phone call, my back stops hurting. I guess it was just reminding me that I need to do this good thing for myself. As Dalean massages those spaces in between muscles and tendons, and I experience the working out of pain, I am reminded again of what my friend told me: the space in between is not supposed to be comfortable. But when we sit in those spaces, allowing them into our consciousness, we see the discomfort and then can begin to realign our lives into balance.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Tiny Seeds in a Big Garden

In my North Carolina garden, even while planting tiny seeds, my third eye (the inner eye in Eastern spiritual tradition) was on the big picture: what this seed will become, and how the garden will incorporate it, and the sense of well-being it will bring to my life-not today, but at some point in the future. In the same way, my work for pay was made up of many small tasks-tasks that were part of the much bigger picture of my own work, and the even bigger picture of the work of the staff. And extending even beyond the staff and the church walls in which we labored, the work of that community of faith always has a third eye on the future of the global world: the big picture.

These days my living feels very different. I am spending time with my beloved mother, the one who breathed life into me, who cherished and 
nurtured me. The one who is now approaching end of life. I know readers will beg to differ-and I understand-but my days and my living now are focused on the minutiae. What can I do today-this minute-to keep the bloom on the flower a little longer? There is no bigger picture for her, and therefore not for me. There is no garden to plant for the future. The only garden is the one I am standing in at this moment. It is true, I may reap a harvest in a time to come, as well as pass on what I learn; but the only thing that really matters is right here, right now, within these walls.

On the other hand, my North Carolina home sat 
under a very small patch of sky. My garden was surrounded by trees that stretched upward and blocked the view of what was beyond. Since the southern sky doesn’t vary much in general-blue, puff clouds, dark: that’s pretty much it-my small patch was even more static. And the North Carolina sky stays put most of the time, way up in the stratosphere.

My Washington home, as I have I said to you before, is on the side of a hill. I can see miles and miles of sky. And it is constantly changing as clouds roll across the landscape. The sky is peaceful and dramatic and everything in between, sometimes all in the same day-at least in this season. And it doesn’t know its place: it often keeps company with the tree tops as fog drifts silently among them and fills in the valley and then dissipates before my eyes. Here I get much more of the big picture.

In North Carolina, I drove two miles to work/church/shopping. My picture frame was confined. Here, I drive 30 miles once a week to yoga and may soon commute there on a second day to church, across the prairie under its big sky. Because my town is small, I regularly step out of it, and my picture frame is much more expansive.

Yesterday, the sky is amazing as I drive to yoga enjoying the eye-popping color of deciduous trees against the deep green backdrop of conifers, as I think about the minutiae and the big picture. The clouds are in layers, with some where they should be, way up in the sky; and others floating close to the ground. I am reminded of a favorite poem by Stanley Kunitz: “Live in the layers, not on the litter.” Life is not on the ground, not in the sky; not in the minutiae, not in the big picture. Life is not in the extremes, but in the layers.

I settle onto my yoga mat, and am aware of the layers of sound. The amplified reverberation of an event on the floor below the yoga loft insinuates its way into my conscious- ness. The whistle of a train shrieks down a nearby track. The shrill squawk of the gulls wheels around the building. And through it all, the calming presence of the yoga music weaves through the layers, grounding me in the space of my mat. I can’t always hear it, it is so soft; then there it is again when I remember to listen for it. It is the thread of the music within the din that reminds me the One Who is More is here in the layers with me: here in the minutiae of these days; here in the big picture; here in the garden all the time.