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.

Advent 3: Breathing in the Dark

Today, we turn in to the third passage of this labyrinth. One thing I have noticed as I take this journey every year is that I get breathless. I find myself needing to take big sighs that don’t seem to quite satisfactorily fill my lungs. I’ll be walking in the halls at school and realize that I have been breathing shallowly, skimming the surface of breath.

So I sit or stand still, lift my chin, set my shoulders back, and take a long slow inward breath that goes down to my toes. When I breathe out again, I release some of that breath downward, through the base of my spine, into the Earth. You and I both know that the lungs are the organ of breathing in the body. I know that when we talk about breathing into our guts, we’re activating the diaphragm to get more involved in the activity of breathing. Still, for me, deep healing breath seems to follow more completely when I expand the activity of breathing throughout my body and into the Earth below me rather than simply centering it in my lungs. In the end I come away more grounded.

Try this, today in a moment between moments. Notice your breathing. Are you breathing deeply or shallowly? Settle yourself into a quiet space, either sitting or standing, and straighten your spine just a little. I think we’re trained to do the sudden, ramrod upward stance to quickly correct “bad posture.” This is about subtle movements that allow for a clear passage of air into our lungs. My shoulders go up and back a little, and I feel my spine as the road that connects Earth and Sky within me.

Breathe in. If you count when you breathe, you might try that. For me, I want to avoid regimentation in my breathing, and counting feels like that to me, but to some people, it’s a comfort. As you breathe in, notice your gut expanding, and feel your body open. Breathing out, send at least some of that breath down to your feet and to the base of your spine. This breath is roots that anchor you and hold you, connecting you to Earth.

Sometimes I get my arms involved, moving up and down with the breath, or I’ll shift my torso back and forth like a snake, to bring the breath into the nooks and crannies between my ribs. Roll your shoulders gently, or your neck, if that helps. Or make an audible sound on the outbreath. For me, the key is to do whatever helps me feel the breath filling all of me.

Right now, walking in this velvety morning darkness, I feel the quiet darkness of winter in the breath, and I take in the shadows that surround me. I am not afraid of this darkness. It’s the darkness of a deeply restful night, the darkness of a beloveds arms enclosing me, a regenerating darkness. The darkness in the chambers where the seed rests before it feels the stirrings that cause it to transform.

I cannot deny that I’m still anxious and claustrophobic about the long nights; that’s a feeling I need to keep naming and exploring, but at the same time I can still welcome the quiet restful dark. Walt Whitman said: “Do I contradict myself? Well, then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.”

One more thing about breathing: I have noticed that when I am talking with a student who is anxious or upset, if I subtly and consciously shift my breathing to a deeper level, they unconsciously join me in the deeper breath. I can see a shift, almost imperceptible, in their eyes, a relaxing. Try it when you’re in the presence of someone who is breathing shallowly because of anxiety or anger or weariness. We draw each other deeper as we tend to our own breath.

And so we walk onward, breathing together in the darkness. Breathing in the the darkness. I hear your steady breath, and the breathing of those who accompany us on this journey, and I know that when my breath falters, yours will be there to remind me to deepen.


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.)

The story I think about today is Starhawk’s novel, The Fifth Sacred Thing. In the story, the army of the Stewards is moving up the coast toward a free city/region. The people of the city have founded their civic life on principles based on nonviolence. As they decide how to respond to the coming army, they consider the point that armed resistance has been the chosen path of humanity for millennia, and it hasn’t worked. If they refuse to fight the invaders, they will lose their free way of life. If they find ways to arm themselves and fight, many of their number will die. If they choose a path of nonviolent resistance, many of them are also likely to die, but they might have a chance of preserving their way of life, and they won’t be compromising the principles upon which they’ve based their whole community. They tell the invading soldiers, “There is a place set for you at our table, if you will choose to join us.”

I would spoil the ending for you to tell you more, whether they miraculously “won” the day with their brilliant tactics of nonviolent resistance, or whether they were overtaken by the violent forces in the end. But that’s actually part of the point, isn’t it? We don’t know whether the vision will “work” in any physical/human sense, but we do it anyway because we hold a vision for the possibility for a different way for humans to be human with each other.

Advent 2: What Will You Risk?

Today we make our turning into the second passage. Yesterday’s journey was quite pleasant, really, as I looked around and saw how many are taking this journey with us. That’s the paradox, isn’t it? It’s a solitary journey that we walk in community, a journey of silence that contains the whispers and singing of others, a joyful anticipation and a recognition of deep grief and pain. Can we hold both sides of the story, center ourselves within the paradox? Sure, we can. Labyrinths are funny that way. They’re disorienting and confusing, and you can never really know where you are, and yet—unlike the fragmented turnings of a maze—the pathway is a single twisting line. All we have to do is to follow the next twist ahead.

Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes reminds us that we were made for these times, echoing Mordecai, the loving uncle in the ancient story, telling his niece Esther the Queen: “Perhaps you were brought here for just such a time as this.” Esther risked her own life to save her people from a capricious and arrogant ruler. As we journey today, let’s ask ourselves: What are we willing to risk in these times? What will we put on the line?

Simply walking into this labyrinth is a risk. We do not know what is around the next bend, what monsters lurk deep and unrecognized within the shadows of our psyches. But walking together, holding our lights high, whispering to each, “I’m here; don’t be afraid,” we can find our way through.

Yesterday, we thought about those burdens in our packs. I have one that I don’t know how to carry, and it asks that question about what I am willing to risk. I’ll put my pack down a moment here and take it out. Open it up. See, all that rage and grief and uncertainty swirling around in there? I want to be one of the ones who stands in the gap here when my country still has not returned the children to their parents, when no one seems to know what to do to make that happen. I want to speak out, to speak truth. But I don’t know how, exactly. So it all just swirls around in there, taking up space and making my pack so heavy.

Take a moment to explore one of the burdens in your own pack, one that you don’t know quite what to do with. Write about it in your journal, or tell a friend about it. Write a song or poem, or paint a painting. I still don’t know exactly how I am going to resolve mine, but it feels lighter now. Maybe this December journey will shed some light for me. For you, too.


Envisioning Peace:
Yesterday in church, Michelle asked us to hold Isaiah’s vision of a world in which the response is peace and understanding rather than violence, ploughshares rather than swords. She asked us to consider situations in which people chose the peaceful path. During Advent, I’m going to look for stories and ideas that hold this vision.

For today’s story, I hold in my mind the vision of Queen Esther taking the risk onto herself, speaking her truth, and averting the genocide of her people. I think that one of the ways in which people step into the ploughshares vision is to choose a third path. Instead of simply capitulating to the injustice or taking up arms to fight it, this path does resist and stand up to the oppression, but with truth instead of weapons.

I think this is just what our times are calling for. How can we envision this third response?

Into the Dark, Day 20

Hush.
Pause.
Wait.
Watch.
Breathe into the quiet dark.
Tomorrow we step out of time.


Gratitude List:
1. Silence
2. Heat
3. Laughter
4. Tenderness
5. Breath

May we walk in Beauty!


“Satisfaction of one’s curiosity
is one of the greatest sources of happiness in life.”
—Linus Pauling


“To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is travelled by dark feet and dark wings.”
—Wendell Berry


“Piety is something you do alone. True freedom, spirituality, can only be achieved in community.” —Martin Sheen


“Fear doesn’t make us safer. It makes us weaker.” —Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, 2015


“The real prayers are not the words, but the attention that comes first.” —Mary Oliver


“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” —Simone Weil

Into the Dark, December 18

Every year at this time, I feel the anxiety and restlessness begin to rise within me, and the cold settles into my bones. Every year, I need to consciously ease my spirit into the season. This year, from the beginning of December until Epiphany, I will set it down here on the blog. May we journey into the darkness with intention and tenderness.

My principal opened a faculty meeting yesterday by asking us to all turn to a neighbor and tell one good thing that happened in the day. It can be easy, when gathered with colleagues, to air the frustrations of the day, so to set the stage for a meeting by getting us to recall one good thing was to set us up for a moment of gratitude. He could hardly get us to be quiet and return our attention to the meeting, we got so wrapped up in finding the twinkling moments of the day.

Today’s word in this winter walk will be gratitude. Noticing, marking, paying attention to each bright thing that appears, each mysterious shadow that reveals itself, each twinkling moment that expands itself within me. Several friends and I do (mostly) daily gratitude lists which we share on our social media pages. It’s not to brag or to create a facade of lives in which everything runs smoothly and beautifully, but to remind ourselves and each other to keep watch, even in times of great sorrow or loss, to pay attention and take note of those things which bring joy, which bless our inner lives. In these days, even in the midst of political turmoil and injustice, there is so much to be grateful for.


Gratitude List:
1. Community of gratitude–being supported and buoyed up by others who have also chosen this work as a spiritual discipline.
2. There are lights at the end of this tunnel
3. The pianist in yesterday’s chapel–David Berry of Eastern Mennonite University. He brought energy and wonder into the space, and such music!
4. Singing the “Hallelujah Chorus” with the campus choral groups on Saturday night. One of my colleagues reminded me yesterday of how incredibly sublime that was.
5. I say this one a lot, but it’s one of the things that helps me hold onto hope in difficult days: the Good People doing their Good Work.

May we walk in Beauty!


“We must give the story of our misfortunes a home. This always seeking to start anew, to cover our eyes and elude pain, eventually only makes refugees of our wounds. They follow at our heels and seep into the background life of every new love. They become the distant, tenacious ache which howls with a silent mantra of unbelonging. We must remember and be willing to say their name. We must house our displacements, gather them close and feed them with our remembering until they acquiesce as the great allies that they are.” —Toko-pa Turner


“Maybe this is crazy, but I think the right to own a gun is trumped by the right not to be shot by one.” —Andy Borowitz


“Sit in stillness and listen to what your heart prays.” —Ruth Jewell


“The root of joy is gratefulness…It is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.” ―David Steindl-Rast

Into the Dark, December 17

Every year at this time, I feel the anxiety and restlessness begin to rise within me, and the cold settles into my bones. Every year, I need to consciously ease my spirit into the season. This year, from the beginning of December until Epiphany, I will set it down here on the blog. May we journey into the darkness with intention and tenderness.

When we hiked the Appalachian Trail, there were those moments when we were climbing a mountain, when we felt like we were there. The path began to level out, the trees got a little shorter, the breezes seemed to signal success. So often, that was just the notice, just the heralding of the top and not the top itself. Often there was more climbing, more pushing ourselves to that last burst of energy necessary before we could find a place to sit and look down at the world below us.

It happened over and over again, that moment when I was sure we’d made it, only to have to climb another half hour or more, legs and back aching, longing for a break.

That’s this week. I can taste it, the moment of turn and shift, the dawn of that Lightreturn sun. But it is not here yet, and I have a week to go, pushing myself through this week yet, until I can take a break and rest in the darkness, marveling at the returning light.

So push on is my small phrase for the day. Feel the breeze, gather in the feeling of a journey almost accomplished, keep a keen eye peeled for the destination. But push on, push through the weariness and the desire to be done, to be there already. Use the available energy to get the necessary work done.


Gratitude List:
1. Little bursts of energy
2. When characters and ideas in books seem to spill out into real life
3. That injera with curried lentils and potatoes and cabbage and quinoa was really delicious. Even the sick child wandered to the table to eat it.
4. Sick child did not throw up yesterday
5. The light WILL return.

May we walk in Beauty!


Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s poem “Protest” published in 1914:

To sin by silence when we should protest
makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance and lust,
The inquisition yet would serve the law.
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare must speak and speak again,
To right the wrongs of many.


“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”
— J.R.R. Tolkien LOTR The Two Towers


Good rules from Rob Breszny:
“Don’t make nasty comments about yourself behind your own back.
Do play soccer in bunny slippers at dawn in a supermarket parking lot with a gang of Vipassana experts who have promised to teach you the Balinese monkey chant.
Do not share deep secrets with creatures you don’t like.
Do wear a T-shirt that says, “Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most.”
Don’t glide into a bar, scout around for the person whose face has the most pain etched in it, and ask that person to come home with you.
Do pretend sometimes that maybe you mean the opposite of what you’re saying as well as what you’re saying.
Don’t pile up framed photos of old flames in a vacant lot and drive a monster truck over them.
Do stage a slow-motion water balloon fight.
Don’t gaze into a mirror and spout, “God damn you, why can’t you be different from who you are?!”
Do shake your fist at the night sky as you call out, “I defy you, stars!”
Do not put handfuls of dead ants in envelopes and mail them to people you’re mad at.
Do run along the tops of cars during a traffic jam, escaping from the bad guys as you make your way to a helicopter that takes you to a spot hovering over an erupting volcano, into which you drop the Buns of Steel video.
Don’t put your soul up for auction on eBay or pine for people who are sitting right next to you.”

Into the Dark, December 14

Every year at this time, I feel the anxiety and restlessness begin to rise within me, and the cold settles into my bones. Every year, I need to consciously ease my spirit into the season. This year, from the beginning of December until Epiphany, I will set it down here on the blog. May we journey into the darkness with intention and tenderness.

Yesterday was St. Lucia’s Day. I usually try to bring in holidays and celebrations from around the world in the first few moments of the class. By the end of the day, I was a little tired of repeating the story of her martyrdom–Diocletian had her eyes gouged out before she was killed. She has come to represent inner light, inner seeing. The tradition of wearing a wreath with lit candles represents that fact of life: that we have many forms of light, many ways to see. Even the St. Lucia buns that people eat on December 13, with the raisins swirled into the ends, represent eyes.

Yesterday I was preoccupied with a certain kind of seeing, of keeping my inner eyes on the beloved one who was in the hands of competent doctors. Prayer is a form of seeing, of watching, observing. Today’s word will be Seeing with a capital S: that watchfulness of what is happening inside, of keeping our beloveds and our world in that prayerful inner focus.


Gratitude List:
1. The sure hands of doctors. Medical technology. All went well in the surgery yesterday.
2. Painting with my small person
3. Eyes to see, and inner eyes to See
4. Fridays
5. Stories and ideas that percolate through the layers of dream

May we walk in Beauty!


“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”
—Muriel Rukeyser 
***
“At times you have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover is yourself.”
—Alan Alda
***
“And love is always the bottom line.” -—Cynthia Bourgeault