Advent 23: Stretching

The inner room is filling with light, with shadow.
More light and more shadow.
Long, quiet, holy darkness.
Short, sparkling light-filled days.

The little shack in C.S. Lewis’s Last Battle, and the Tardis in the Doctor Who television series, have something in common with you and with me. Each structure–shack, time machine, and human–is bigger are the inside than it appears from the outside. Outside, a normal-looking structure, but inside, a whole world of wonders.

Here in these days of quiet and clamor, of enfolding darkness and bedazzling light, we walk through the inner rooms like we walk through the old house that recurs in our dreams, exploring the nooks and crannies, the magical spaces and the dark closets. It’s so big! I never knew this room existed! Look! Over here is a room full of treasures! This one is dark and quiet, and contains only a tiny wooden box. Whisper. Shout! These stairs end in a pantry, and those go up to the roof. Open this door. And this one.

Feel the vast spaces within you, knowable, unexplored, waiting for you to enter and experience who you are in your deepest inner rooms. Stretch your hands up and out. Draw in deep breaths. Stretch and stretch. You are larger on the inside.

As the wise man who left us yesterday reminded us:

“Be here now.” –Ram Dass

Stretch. Expand. Explore.


Gratitude List:
1. Back home with the cats
2. People who do things simply to watch the delight on the face of a child
3. My marvelous father, born on this day. What an example of tenderness and compassion he is.
4. I am pretty sure that seven-bird V that just winged its way above the hollow was snow geese.
5. Today is going to be a work day. I kind of dread hard work–I’d rather be playing with yarn or making cookies or writing poems, but when this day is done, I will feel much more free in my spirit to do those other things.

May we walk in Beauty!

Advent 22: What Are You Waiting For?

When I walk a labyrinth, I like to take my time in the center, to pause and rest, to give space in the holy hush between in-breath and out-breath for something new to enter. In this December labyrinth, we’ve walked through increasingly dark passages, exploring the shadows, examining our own little lights, reflecting on the interplay between darkness and light.

Today the planet begins her inward spin again, back toward equilibrium, away from the outer point of our elliptical whirl. And there’s a feeling–much more poetic than scientific–of pause here at the edges. Just the slightest sensation of being between.

Breathing, like labyrinth-walking, is a steady in and out process. And like the labyrinth, it isn’t necessarily a simple in-and-turn-and-out journey. Between each breath is a little doorway into a room between breaths, a space where something new may enter.

And so, in this moment on the planetary spin, this space between breaths, this pause, this doorway, this room, we sit and we wait for what is to come. Here we sit within Time out of Time. The wait for Sunreturn is over, but Advent continues.

In the Christian tradition, we are waiting for the Child of Light to appear, for the angels to shine forth and announce a Birth. We ask ourselves what this welcome means. Is it a mystical moment, only an inner dawning? Is it a psycho-socio-political moment when we consider what it means to welcome the ones who are caught on the margins without hope of help? Is it simply the re-telling of an ancient tale? What are we waiting for?

Here in this dark, quiet room in the space between breaths, we have time to consider what it is we are waiting for. It’s not about the urgency of a child’s breathless anticipation of presents and play. We prepare these inner rooms, watch our dreams and visions, notice the way the breath moves in and out, and pauses. We wait.


Gratitude List:
1. Oyster Stew at the Town Hall Restaurant, where my father used to take my grandmother. I felt like Grandma was there, too. Even Santa stopped by, and gave us all candy canes.
2. Watching my brother teach my son to play guitar. Watching my nephew painting with my son. Playing games together, eating together. I am so grateful to be raising my children in these circles of village.
3. The twinkle and sparkle of lights.
4. The space between breaths.
5. Walking and waiting with you.

May we walk (and wait) in Beauty!

Advent 21: The Shortest Day

We arrive at the shortest day.
Silence.
Stillness.
This moment, when I am writing, is the darkness just before the dawn.
The year, too, is dawning.
Sit in the dark.
Feel the empty quiet around you.
Breathe in.
Breathe out.
Holy, holy, holy.


Gratitude List:
1. Laughing with my family. Somebody said last night that they were glad we get to celebrate Winter Stoltzfus together.
2. The long night is over and the day is dawning.
3. There are still many days to become acquainted with the shadows, but the light is returning.
4. How the house lights make the dew sparkle and twinkle. Light and shadow. Light and shadow
5. Now the day begins, the laughter, the clatter, the murmurs, the music the twinkling eyes.

May your day be filled with Shine!

Advent 19: The Value of Being Seen

by Gustave Doré

At the public school where my ten-year-old son is in fifth grade, the principal has taught the students the South African greeting, “Sawabona,” which translates to, “I see you.”

They respond, “Sawabona sikhona.”

“Because you see me, I am here.”

I have a friend who simply tells me that in English, usually when we’ve had a deep and meaningful conversation. “I See You.”

I feel Seen.

Just yesterday, I had a moment of feeling Seen. While much of my demeanor is heart-on-my-sleeve, I have my masks, the little disguises I wear to cover and protect parts of myself that don’t feel safe to reveal in certain settings. It was a little thing, really, but it opened up a tiny nest of calm in a place where belonging can sometimes feel a little tenuous.

It was only a book recommendation, offered in a quiet moment. But it felt like a gift, a way of saying, “I See You.” Not a tearing off of my mask, but a nod to the truth beneath it.

My masks are part of the shadows that I am exploring in these days of walking into darkness. Every shadow that I cling to has its purpose, its protection, and some I must release into the light when light returns, but others protect vulnerable and tender selves, make it possible for parts of me to move and flow in social circles. I’ll shine my little light on these protective shadow-masks here in the labyrinth, but keep them in place, and be glad of the people who know even these little parts of who I am.

Some of our masks keep us from being seen, being known. The protection becomes solid armor and the shadow takes on tangibility, beyond their need to protect, instead keeping people away, keeping people from knowing who we are. I have students who are wrapped up in their protective shadows with such care that they appear almost invisible.

The gentle work of tending to these quiet souls needs not a harsh and blinding light, but the golden glow of the little candles we’ve been nursing in this walk through the labyrinth. Let’s be a safe and nurturing circle, where we can look someone in the eyes and say with words or glance: “I See You.”


Gratitude List:
1. Being Seen
2. Something is lifting. Today, I feel the little animal of my spirit is lifting its nose and sensing the coming Sunreturn. Instead of two more days of walking into darkness, I feel two more days until Sunreturn, and that feels like a big inner shift for me.
3. Foxes. Yesterday I read the page on foxes to my students from my advent book, All Creation Waits. (If you are reading it too, I am a few days ahead, because I want to read them the Christmas reading on Friday.) And this morning, I was sifting through a deck of inspirational cards I keep near me, and today’s character, synchronously, is the fox. All the senses tuned. Ears cocked. The mystery of inner knowing.
4. Chocolate. Yesterday, I sort-of-but-maybe-not-quite accidentally listened to the hearing on the radio. After only a little while, I was in desperate need of chocolate, and my beloved obliged.
5. Anticipation

May we walk in Beauty!

Advent 18: Torpor and Dreams

Such a strange and wakeful night it was. The borders between sleep and unsleep were oddly porous. Toward the end there, I did fall into deeper grooves of dream and sleep. I don’t feel particularly unrested, so there’s that. Perhaps it’s the load of work still to get done this week, or the doings in the House today, or the season, or the excitement of going to play practice again after twenty-five years. Or maybe it was simply cats and digestion.

This season, I have been reading Gayle Boss’ All Creation Waits again, learning about the various states of torpor and hibernation and quiet of various animals throughout a northern winter. I, too, feel torpor taking me, but it’s not always about deep sleep for me. Sometimes, it feels more like a simple need to rest quietly and profoundly, while the stories play out in my brain.

Winter is, for me, the Dreaming Time. I do head more readily toward sleep, if I don’t always actually make it to the deepest waters. After Solstice and Christmas, in the hush of nights when the planet seems to pause in its dance, as she begins the whirl back to exquisite balance, I listen more closely to my dreams, watching for symbols and images and words that I might mine for use in the coming year. Already, my night-brain seems to be readying me for the work of conscious dreaming.

Now comes the work of remembering and sorting the images that come in those half wakeful moments between the dreaming and sleeping and waking. May your dreams bring you wisdom.


Gratitude List:
1. The startling talents of my students.
2. The wisdom of dreams and darkness
3. Break is coming
4. Only 3 days until Sunreturn
5. Little spaces in the coming day in which to breathe

May we walk in Beauty!

Advent 16: Companionship

Last summer’s wren nest from the behind the light switch in the shop. Even claustrophobic people love the cozy symbolism of a nest.

Today, as we Breathe-Step-Stop-Listen, Breathe-Step-Stop-Listen, Breathe-Step-Stop-Listen, a song and a poem to sustain us on this walk through Day Sixteen toward Advent. Thank you for walking with me. Only five more days until Sunreturn, Beloveds. We are going to make it.

When I compare this year’s more deliberate and careful wander into the dark of December with last year’s panicked careen, I am filled with gratitude. I know I tried last year, but I had decided that I was going to try a keto-based way of eating last fall, and my deliberations were focused on that, and less inward. It was only when I reached the growing light of late January that I realized how deeply I had sunk into winter’s numbness. Last year, I probably should have checked in with a therapist to keep me coping. This year, I am watching and ready to make that call, in case I feel myself sinking into the pool of sadness. If the season weighs too heavily, or the cold seeps into your spirit, I encourage you to be ready, too, to check in with a professional.

Funny, isn’t it? Usually, we look for the light at the end of a tunnel, meaning we’ll be out and into the fresh air, but while this journey into the well of December may bring us to a lighted chamber, we have to turn and walk out again the same distance before we get back out of the tunnel. Still, that moment of coming to center and pausing, then the turning, and setting our faces toward the return journey into the light–oh, how I long for that moment. That will be so joyful. Five more days.


Here is a video of Brian Claflin and Ellie Grace singing “I’m Gonna Walk It With You.” Whether our journey is the descent into winter’s darkness, or the determined march toward justice, I am glad of your companionship. You can support Claflin and Grace by buying their music at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c8boCrXOp9M.


I wrote this poem a few years ago, but it feels like it fits this moment, my deep gratitude for your companionship on this journey.

Stepping Toward the Solstice

We stand in the shadows.
Hold my hand.
The darkness suffocates.
Look this way,
to where the sun shines briefly
through a curtain of ice.
This. This one moment
will sustain us for the next steps.


Gratitude List:
1. I made an enormous dent in my Impossible Mountain last night. Part of my relief today is the amount of work I accomplished, but a greater part of the relief is the feeling of that dam being unclogged. Still so much to do, but I have returned to the truth that Will builds Will. An act of will creates the possibility for more acts of will. As long as I keep that energy, I should make it.
2. Great gratitude to Nancy, for listening and sharing the story. I think I needed an accountability partner, and I used our conversation yesterday as the slingshot to get me around the hardest bits of the Impossible Task.
3. A new warm thing. I stopped at Goodwill and bought myself a new warm fleece jacket-thing. It’s for wearing around the house at home, and it’s cozy, and it’s a wild cat print, so it makes me feel a little fierce. Is that a middle-aged woman thing, to want to wear wildcat print? Or maybe it’s just a Leo thing. I know that some consider it a tacky thing, too, but I’m not fussed about that. It’s warm and it’s fierce, and so Merry Christmas to me.
4. The sacred moments within the mundane.
5. The anticipation of a snow day, even when it doesn’t seem like it’s going to pan out.

May we walk in Beauty!

Advent 12: Claustrophobia

Beloveds, we are just over halfway to through this December labyrinth walk into the dark. The light begins to return on Solstice, on the 21st.

Where I live, the holiday traffic is ramping up to frantic, and the afternoon commute gets long and dark and claustrophobic. Yesterday, I nearly let the long ride home ruin my evening. Being trapped in a box on wheels on a highway in the dark for hours feels too much like my inner state in December.

Today, I need to make sure that I am intentionally working to combat the claustrophobia I feel rising in me as the constricting layers of winter clothes and the darkness and the schedule and the traffic have all closed around me.

First, Breathing:
Breathe in. Pause. Breathe out.
Pause: Remember last night’s moon.
Breathe in, holding the image of moon.
Pause: Let go of the traffic.
Breathe out.
Pause: Yesterday’s lovely morning snow.
Breathe in.
Pause: Let go of the work ahead.
Breathe out.
Pause: So many shining, twinkling lights surround me, students and family and friends.
Breathe in. Pause. Breathe out. Pause. . .

Second, Art:
Yesterday before I went to bed, I watched a little video of comic artist Tim Gula doing an exercise in automatic drawing. It’s kind of like a journal free-write, where you just keep your hand moving and put whatever comes down on the paper. I have noticed that even my doodles have become constricted lately, lines choked and tight. I think that some drawing practice might help me to free up some of this claustrophobic inner space.

Third, Story:
I’ve queued up the next book in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle on my tablet, and I am going to have it along on the ride to school so we can start to listen to it today.

Perhaps claustrophobia isn’t a struggle for you at this time of year. Is it panic, silence or noise, loneliness? Or maybe this is your happiest time. What are the tools you use to cope with the challenges or to mark and celebrate the joys?


Gratitude List:
1. Story
2. Art
3. Breath
4. Wildness
5. Moon

May we walk in Beauty!

Advent 9: Mending

This weekend, I mended things. Each one of the four of us had an item of clothing with at least one hole. I am learning to darn knitwear. Some are easier than others, but I definitely got a little better as I went along. One special shirt was losing its SOUND CREW letters, and was full of little holes. I patched up the holes the best that I could and stitched the letters into place. On my own knit cardigan, instead of darning the holes closed, I stitched a thick ridge of thread around the edges of the holes, making a decorative element rather than trying to cover up the problems.

In this walk through the shadowy tunnels of the December labyrinth, I wonder how the mending metaphor can work for me in other ways. At times, it’s easy enough to repair a communication breach: stitch the edges together, and call it done. The line of repair might be obvious, but it stands as a reminder of the care needed for good communication.

Other times, relationships need serious reweaving, one person patching a new warp, and the other weaving a new weft back and forth, catching the frayed and slipping threads as you go. That’s tedious work, but the resulting repaired relationship can come through stronger and more interesting for the art and care put into the mending. Or sometimes, we work together to make the pain of the break in a relationship into a thing of beauty, a decorated memory of the hole we fell into. I have a few of these relationships in my life, and I treasure them with the sort of obstinate intensity that I lavish on a favorite article of clothing that will never be thrown away because the mended spots have become a part of the essential beauty and truth of the garment.

What needs mending today? How will you approach that which must be rethreaded, restitched, tended with threads of connection?


Envisioning:
(At the beginning of Advent, my pastor asked us to hold the swords-into-ploughshares vision in our heads, to look for stories of people choosing that vision. For the next little while, I am going to look for such stories as my daily morning meditation.)

Have you heard of ICU nurse Lori Wood, who was working with a 27-year-old-patient who needed a heart transplant? The young man was both autistic and homeless, and unable to get a heart transplant if he had nowhere to go afterward and no one to take care of him. In order to ensure that he could get all the care and treatment he needed, Ms. Wood adopted him, took him home, and cared for him. She wasn’t trying to be a hero. She was living her vision of true humanity.

(While this isn’t a situation that shows someone choosing a peaceful response to potentially violent situation, I think it’s not too far a stretch to call the experience of homelessness and the lack of health care for people in poverty a violent situation. Ms. Wood was offering an intentional compassionate response to a systemic violence, so I am going to say it fits the parameters of the exercise.)

Advent 7: Approach with Curiosity

This is a picture of my cat Erebus through the window between our kitchen and the breezeway. Behind him are some of the houses of Legoland, but my own reflection is caught within the shadow of him, and behind me is the reflection of the window to the outside.

One of the dangers for me in this season is numbness. There is so much to do; there are so many details to keep track of, so many people with needs to respond to. Compounding this, the cold and the closing darkness make me draw inward, pulling inside myself. It can be easy to forget to feel, to live in a survival mindset, moving from task to task with an automatic and robotic air, just trying to hold on and make it through.

It helps to be conscious and deliberate in my response to the pull toward hibernation, not denying the desire, offering myself small oases of hibernation in the context of the busy life I must continue to lead. Stop and breathe. Stop and read a poem. Stop and draw a picture. Stop and smile at someone. I need to change the pace, stepping at the rhythm my body and psyche demand rather than the rush and bustle that the frantically commercial outside world demands.

It also helps, here in this winter labyrinth, to hone and practice curiosity, letting the mind out to play, opening the heart more fully to wonder and delight. Look up from the relentless task list in front of you, and let your gaze wander over the world outside the momentary ruts. Notice the colors and textures. Take an interest. Be curious. It helps to combat the dullness.

I have developed an obsession with taking photos of reflections, and reflections of reflections. In the picture above, I am caught in the reflection of a picture of my cat through a window. His name is Erebus, which is the personification of darkness and shadow in ancient Greek cosmology. Even the shadows have a wonderful variety of shade and hue. Shadows and reflections of shadows are doorways, places where worlds meet, tangible and intangible places of possibility.

How will you be changed if you decide to walk through one of those doorways?


Envisioning:
(At the beginning of Advent, my pastor asked us to hold the swords-into-ploughshares vision in our heads, to look for stories of people choosing that vision. For the next little while, I am going to look for such stories as my daily morning meditation.)

This week, I have come across several articles about Rain Dove, a model who responds to critics and detractors with what one writer called ‘relentless kindness.” Rain Dove is non-binary, and receives quite a lot of hateful responses to their social media posts about their own life. A recent incident in which an angry parent posted an angry and blaming note to Rain Dove about their influence on the parent’s child turned into an honest conversation about being present for a child who needs tender-hearted adults. Rain Dove began with humor to diffuse the anger, then probed gently and non-judgmentally to find out the root of the parent’s anxiety. Then they asserted repeatedly that it seems obvious that the parent must really love and care for the child and want what’s best. I want to be like Rain Dove, practicing a vision of a world in which we approach each other with relentless kindness.

Advent 5: Webs of Prayer

As I walk today’s fifth passage into the dark labyrinth tunnel of December, I can’t help but contemplate the cobwebs. In my physical house, the spiders have moved in from garage and attic to the house proper, seeking warmth and light and fresh insects. (Some of that is on my list winter comforts, too, though not the third.) I do take down the webs when the spiders become too assertive with their territory-claims, but mostly I live and let spin. They’ve learned to eat the stink bugs in the past five years or so, so I can’t begrudge them too much real estate.

And the web is my primary symbol of prayer. For being such a universal activity in so many religious (and even nonreligious) traditions, prayer remains nearly undefinable. What we do when we pray varies by person and situation. While I can speak a prayer in words, and I love poetic communal prayer, as an individual and contemplative activity, prayer for me has been more of a visualization or meditation, more like a raising of energy, than a direct invocation.

For thoughts on prayer, I tend to turn to the poets rather than the theologians, though when the theologians speak poetically, I am more likely to trust them. I like Mary Oliver’s perspective in “The Summer Day”:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?”

and Joy Harjo’s “Eagle Poem”:

“To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.”

When I pray, I feel myself on the web, feel you on the web, feel the love, the intention for healing, for restoration. It’s not a physical feeling, perhaps, but usually the metaphor is realer than words for me, and I sense the thrum and tug of the energy between us humming like. . .well, like a prayer.

Today, here in this metaphorical passageway, with cobwebs above our heads, and the watchful spiders around us, let’s practice working with that web of prayer. Consider some situation for which you long to see healing and rightness return. On a breath, send out a line of spidersilk on the breeze toward that spot in the field of existence. Be the spider, surfing the electrical currents in the air, tugging the strand taut between you the the story you pray for. Feel the hum of energy and breathe your own healing intention along that line. I will listen for you on this web of which we all are part, and wait to feel your energy.


Envisioning:
(On Sunday, Michelle asked us to hold the swords-into-ploughshares vision in our heads, to look for stories of people choosing that vision. For the next little while, I am going to look for such stories as my daily morning meditation.)

Yesterday, someone sent me a link to a story of three young men who noticed an elderly woman sitting alone at a restaurant. Something prompted one of them to go and ask if he could sit with her. He asked her about her life, and she told him that she was a widow, approaching what would have been her 60th wedding anniversary. He asked her to join him and his friends at their table, and they had a transformative encounter that enriched them all. They were separated by gender and age and race, and yet they met with open hearts, and a tender and holy connection was made.