Peace: My April Confession

April comes to a close. It is a month of light and lightness.

So many of the fast, nervous streams of thought in me have calmed.

The best things: kids getting bigger but maintaining a baby space just for us. Nicky crawls into the space between us in the bed, quick to laugh and share all the things that matter to him. We strive to listen. Silas asks, delighted, “you’re going to watch this with me?” when I plop down next to him on the couch with a pile of clean laundry. Aimee runs up to me and sticks out her hand, and we walk together.

We sit next to each other, listening to this couple make music, still going after 25 years. They talk about sustainability. We’re learning. We lean against each other in the dark.

Everything’s coming in green. This is the easy time of year. Windows open, feet bare, giant bees hovering gently around our heads, sunlight for the way in and way home from work. Everything lightens in April. I turn thirty-two. I have a good feeling about this year.

I still dream about expanding my life, while at the same time so grateful for my life just as it is. This is peace.

There are declarations I feel like I can make, but I’m not making them. I’m simply enjoying the lightness of this new place. I used to put a whole lot of emotional energy into things that I don’t see the need to anymore. The energy goes to other things now. Things of my choosing. The here and now.

Peace. There are different ways to come to it.

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Loyalty and Longing: My March Confession

Every Easter morning I can remember, my father would be singing up from the grave He aroooooossssse! purposefully, mischeviously even, as he poured pancake batter over the griddle and we scrambled to get ready for church. It was a family joke of sorts, sung sometimes on other mornings, tying the resurrection to the daily difficulty of getting out of bed. But I knew he sang the words with a deep reverence too. I knew that being made new was central to his theology.

Easter is almost here again. The bulbs we planted last fall are shooting up out of the ground, the temperature outside is slowly creeping upward, and I’m optimistically packing away the heavier coats and scarves. There is warm rain falling outside, and it smells earthy when I step out of the front door. With these changes come a fresh energy, an ease of work. I’m cleaning, brightening, sorting. This is how things are supposed to be.

It’s been a year of quiet, of going inward, of letting go. The years that led up to this year were louder, angrier, heavier with emotion. But this year–from one Easter Sunday to another– has been mostly, mercifully, quiet. Perhaps, after all this anger and frustration (which is to say, anger) and impatience and sadness and whatever else it has been, comes a longing.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes this of belief and faith:

Religion, faith and belief are not the same thing, he [James Fowler] says, though often we speak of them as if they were. In the sixteenth century, “to believe” meant “to set the heart upon” or “to give the heart to” as in, “I believe in love.” But in the centuries following the Enlightenment, secular use of the words “belief’ and “believe” began to change until they said less about the disposition of one’s heart than the furniture in one’s mind. By the nineteenth century, when knowledge about almost anything consisted chiefly of empirical facts, belief became the opposite of knowledge. A person’s belief in God was reduced to his or her belief system–the unprovable statements of faith that person judged to be true. The great pity of this conflation, Fowler says, is that when faith is reduced to creeds and doctrines, plenty of thoughful people are going to decide they no longer have faith. They might hang on if they heard the word used to describe trust or loyalty in something beyond the self, but when they hear “faith” used to signify belief in a set formula of theological truths, the light in their eyes goes out. When I listen to college students talk about faith, beliefs are what interest them most: Do you believe in the virgin birth? Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins? Do you believe that only Christians go to heaven? No one asks, “On what is your heart set?” No one asks, “What powers do you most rely on? What is the hope that gives meaning to your life?” Those are questions of faith, not belief. The answers to them are not written down in any book, and they have a way of shifting in the dark.

Learning to Walk in the Dark, p. 143-144, emphasis mine

I knew as a child that my parents’ actions–my father’s prayers, my mother’s devotion to reading and reciting scripture, and their focus on passing these things down to us– stemmed from a faith that was larger than they could fully express, though they tried. It truly was something they had “set their hearts upon”. I want to honor their reverence, while making a more open space for my own.

Last Easter I sang Christ the Lord is Risen Today with so much gladness in my heart, after eating breakfast with a kind community of people and sharing in the fun of watching children hunt eggs in their pastel frocks and button ups. I had the glorious luxury of singing the words without dwelling on whether I believed them–I simply sang, loud and happy, because the song is beautiful and because it is familiar. I felt a loyalty to it. I still do. It’s of those homesickness things, Easter.

Right after that beautiful Sunday it all just fell apart. I let it. I didn’t return to any sort of church until late November, using Sunday mornings to try to heal myself instead. It wasn’t because of that welcoming and anciently forward-thinking congregation at all, and it wasn’t because of the genuine outpouring of faith my parents gifted me as a child, or the many beautiful people of faith I’ve known over the years. It was because of other elements of American Christianity I’d observed as I paid more attention–the anti-intellectual attitude, the refusal to see other points of view, the rigid insistence that one interpretation of Scripture is the only one possible, the demand to be served, to maintain rights and status and privilege–all behavior that makes no sense for people who claim to follow the ultimate servant. This was not something I wanted to align myself or my children with, and so I started picking it apart. I think I understand now why people can be so resistant to questioning–once you start it’s nearly impossible to stop.

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My religion of birth, Christianity, was given to me as absolute truth. I do not see it this way. I see it as a useful and beautiful story, one of many that the people of this Earth have assembled over long periods of time. The question inevitably, eventually, must follow: if this is merely a story, useful and beautiful yes, but just a story, is it worthwhile? I say, and choose to believe, that any beautiful story is worthwhile. The beauty I find, in Christianity or elsewhere, informs my daily actions and in turn what my children will find important. This is the hope that gives meaning to my life. It is enough.

My parents, in their own way, taught me to pay attention, and that’s the same thing I am doing, just in my own way. I believe in ritual and beauty and metaphor. I am trying to be brave enough to let my children believe in some things in a literal sense so that later they can know it was a foundation for something else. I will always protect. I cannot control. They will draw their own conclusions, when they are ready.

Perhaps it is a gift that can’t quite be understood before its right time comes: to lose one thing in order to find another.

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I come from women

I come from women who have found themselves with child

and carried on, surprised and terrified,

waiting for the feeling of delight.

I come from women who dig into the dirt

for comfort and make things grow

perennially.

I come from women who know a darkness

who speak of it in shadowed ways,

or not at all.

I come from them, I am them.

We who walk away from crowds and conversations,

we who talk about sunsets with charisma, we who return from

time spent on big warm rocks, skygazing,

with a new strength.

We who must learn, again and again

just how much we need other people.

I come from a religion of planting flowers.

Always, there were tangled vines with purple-blue

buds opening into a burst, climbing up the

criss-cross of wire fence,

beautifying, complicating, every spring and summer.

I come from places I cannot name well,

but I know them well.

I will plant my seeds too, and revere

the beauty

at the end of the tangles.

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something to know

I sat in it for the rest of the afternoon, staring at the lake. I still had 334 miles to hike before I reached the Bridge of the Gods, but something made me feel as if I’d arrived. Like that blue water was telling me something I’d walked all this way to know.

This was once Mazama, I kept reminding myself. This was once a mountain that stood nearly 12,000 feet tall and then had its heart removed. This was once a wasteland of lava and pumice and ash. This was once an empty bowl that took hundreds of years to fill. But hard as I tried, I couldn’t see them in my mind’s eye. Not the mountain or the wasteland or the empty bowl. They simply were not there anymore. There was only the stillness and silence of that water, what a mountain and a wasteland and an empty bowl turned into after the healing began.”

-Cheryl Strayed, Wild

I watched this movie with my friend after a day luxuriously full of words–all the words we had saved up for each other. We spent a quick few days eating, and talking, and enjoying her family, and talking, and seeing beautiful things, walking through the drizzle of Seattle, and talking. We sat in a theater and watched this woman walk 1100 miles alone, holding an enormous weight on her back, making her way to somewhere she needed to be. We felt the same heaviness and the same lightness, I think, about our shared history and our shared letting go.

We both used to have this big, complicated, form-giving understanding of the world and we both know now that it’s possible for that to fall away. We know the chaotic swirl of possibilities left in its wake. We know a simple stillness, too.

I went home to my life and slowly made my way through the book (breaking the sacred rule of read the book first) and took my time with Strayed’s journey. Many times, I’ve instinctively known that I need time alone in the forest or the mountains or the desert, whatever is available to me, to heal what is broken. I know this. I always return home filled with what I needed.

Sometimes you need to walk alone and carry heavy things, only so you can reach a place of beauty and set the heavy things down.

And then, you will know forever that you did it and could do it again. It will always belong to you.

for my dear friend E.

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On Sacred Spaces: My February Confession

 I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

-Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

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We, just the two of us, went to Italy. It was a feast for the senses–the language was music and the food was earthy and elegant. Interesting details were everywhere, from moss on stone in the Colosseum to Jesus’ face in a painting by Michelangelo being the exact same face on a Roman sculpture, to train station cafes that served sandwiches and wine, and boasted more elaborate espresso machines than you’d find in any Starbucks. People in Venice, leaning out of their windows, hanging sheets out to dry. Hopes for resurrection etched into the stone walls of winding catacombs. Empty wineglasses on windowsills outside canteens. A small piece of the arrow that is said to have pierced St. Sebastian. Plain whipped cream (the real stuff) lopped on top of melone gelato, cutting the sweetness perfectly. Tiny spoons for stirring sugar.

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We ate what we wanted and walked almost everywhere. We bought things to bring home: bottles of wine, limoncello, a stovetop espresso maker, a pair of babysoft gray suede shoes, biscotti, magnets depicting pieces of the Sistine Chapel. It’s not really possible to bring the spirit of a place home with you, but we all try.

After a few days, the churches and the exquisite art within started to seem almost common. They’re simply everywhere. Armed with a guidebook, we took in as much as we could without rushing and defeating the purpose of vacation.

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In Rome, we spent plenty of time admiring the scope of things as well as feeling uncomfortable with the scope of things. Both in the secular and religious realms, it all seems to be about excess and power, but my sensitivity is to the religious. (My Protestant is about to start showing, but no variation of religion is free from the love of power.) While the art is precious and the craftsmanship well-worthy of admiration, the places that house them hold the silent echoes of stolen riches and trampled innocents. Hollow, not hallowed. “Think of what they could do with all that money,” I vent to Ricky over coffee and pastries after touring St. Peter’s Basilica. “I bet Peter would be completely uncomfortable in there, embarrassed even.”

I imagine Peter grilling fish on the beach with his Savior, wrestling with the call of do you love me? then feed my sheep and wanting Him to stay forever. Alone, hanging upside down, dying in love for the Person who changed it all for him. How does a simple message of love turn into a power structure? Maybe his bones lie down under the enormous altar, but it’s that moment on the beach that matters. How do you contain that in a building? Even on vacation, I cannot escape this constant dialogue with religion and spirituality. It fascinates or wearies, depending on how much space I have for it.

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Last month, I wrote this:

It’s my default right now to view religion in general through a lens of harm caused and ignorance applauded. Christianity–this behemoth of goodness and evil, source of bread and poison, great beauty and so much ugliness–I’ve been so mad at it for so long.

I wish I could find a way back to that beach, too.

Surely there must be a space in this world, in our lives, for art and beauty and sacred spaces. And our various tribes understand those things differently. Give me a cathedral of pine trees and birdsong over marble and organ anyday, but I must understand if you would rather have the marble and the organ. I must try to imagine, if that is your beauty, what you would feel in a basilica such as St. Peter’s.

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As we were moving to leave, a Mass began, with hauntingly beautiful voices singing in Latin. It didn’t matter what they were singing; all could understand. They were singing devotion and longing. They were singing human things in a human place that speaks of all the humanly complicated intersections with divinity. The singing made it beautiful–not the gold or the carvings, the relics or the prestige. The singing–filling that huge empty space.

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Is feeling and seeing beauty what makes feel “the rapture of being alive”? Details of beauty were everywhere in Italy; they are everywhere here too. Aimee’s unbelievably long eyelashes, Nicky’s tight hugs, Silas’ warmth and humor, Ricky’s steadiness, and my own sensitive mind, looking for clues. The people we share our lives with, that fill the empty spaces. I’ve rejected a lot of things that were once precious to me, but I remain in wonder of things old and new. This is my baseline: wonder. Perhaps I can build upon it, but I can always burrow my way down to it.

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In the cathedrals of New York and Rome

There is a feeling that you should just go home

And spend a lifetime finding out just where that is

-Jump, Little Children

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The State of Things: My January Confession

“It’s hard to capture it in one word,” I say, chewing on my lip. This is an ongoing conversation with myself, with my husband, with a few friends who know this terrain well, and with her.

“Instead of one word, can you describe it with a group of words?” she presses, gently.

I try. Every other week, for almost a year now, I am in this room, paying attention to my state of being. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. We talk about a lot of things in this room–parenting, childhood, marriage, dreams and goals, grief, my evolution from fundamentalism to evangelicalism to progressive Christianity to whatever it is I’m doing now.

Humanist? Post-Christian? Atheist? Post-Evangelical? Progressive/Emergent? Naturalist? Person of Faith? Believer? Unbeliever? Spiritual? Agnostic? Recovering Fundamentalist?

I’d like to be on a path to greater clarity, if not certainty. To that end, here’s my confession for the month of January. I’ll be back in this space at the end of each month this year, doing my best to honestly evaluate where I am on this journey.

*****

I still believe that Sundays are for vulnerability and soul-searching. I still believe in sacred spaces, in a regular centering practice, in confession.

I find myself outside of the boundaries of Christianity, and I’m coming to terms with it. The ability to believe many things has simply left me, and this has been a source of both great relief and great pain.

It’s my default right now to view religion in general through a lens of harm caused and ignorance applauded. Christianity–this behemoth of goodness and evil, source of bread and poison, great beauty and so much ugliness–I’ve been so mad at it for so long. It’s been heavy for the better part of ten years. And yet, some of the most gorgeous people I’ve ever known (personally and historically) are/were devout Christians. This thing just isn’t simple. I feel steadier and healthier outside of it all, but it absolutely saves some people; it absolutely has made the world better in some cases.

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My faith was never bland or obligatory for me. It was the frame of reference for everything. I fell head over heels in love with Jesus somewhere around age three, and continued to do so for years and years. What was real? What is real now? I keep saying goodbye and then taking it back.

A Lutheran pastor I’ve spoken with here, who has encouraged me greatly in this journey, makes the point that there are two different Jesuses. There is the historical person, and there is the Christ figure, which is what people constructed (and what we continue to construct) from the historical person. I find some comfort in this idea–that I can continue to appreciate so many things about Jesus, even as my ideas about him have changed, and probably will continue to change. There is so much more to explore there. I can’t face it all at once, but there is this: all of the good things his life has represented to me remain. A lot of good remains. I choose to believe that the Jesus story matters in the greater human story. He remains beautiful to me.

It’s not lost on me that these words will cause pain. That makes me hesitant to share them, but then I think of the private messages I get sometimes, in response to what I post here. Me too. I feel the same way. I haven’t had to do this alone, and I don’t want anyone else to.

I’ve always felt refreshed on a spiritual level when I’ve spent some time alone in nature. Maybe it’s just that stillness is the goal, and nature encourages me to be still in a way that nothing else does. Before I had children, and there were Sundays I just couldn’t stand to go to church (I imagine my cognitive dissonance began many years before I was aware of it) I went out into nature by myself. That is an instinct I’m paying closer attention to now.

So what’s the plan? Now there’s a question. I have a husband with his own mind, on his own journey, and we have three amazing children to raise. Right now, what I want for them are lessons that are easily taught in church: generosity, kindness, humility, elevating The Other. Community, looking out for the needs of others. Love, honesty, self-control.

I want other things for them, too–values they may or may not get from church.  Reason, curiosity, critical thinking skills. The ability to go to their classes and simply listen without an agenda–to love learning for itself.  Open-ended questions, fresh perspectives. Wonder. Gentleness, understanding, joy. I don’t want them to ever think there’s only one source for good things. Good things abound if you don’t have to make everything line up a certain way.

I’ve thought of God in metaphorical terms for something close to a year, desperate to see universal connections. Now? I don’t know. The jury is out. I am still overcome with wonder and gratefulness on pretty much a daily basis. I still say my thank-yous out loud.

So this is the state of things. I’m thinking, more and more, that it’s all going to be okay.

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Christmas, in a moment

Two weeks ago, our little Aimee spiked a fever, became lethargic, and refused to eat. She slept. And slept. And sat up to drink juice, and slept some more. It was worrisome, but I figured she’d pull through it like our kids always do. Three days passed, and she wasn’t getting better. We were watching her chest rise and fall way too fast, muscles pulling in, sucking in air. All she wanted to do was sleep. Ricky bundled her up and took her to Urgent Care on Saturday morning. Her oxygen level was 83%. They called an ambulance.

My family was in town, and we had plans to spend the weekend at a cabin, with snow and a cozy fire and presents and the like. It all fell away. My brother helped me get to the hospital (my keys were in the vehicle Ricky had taken), my mom went into laundry and cooking mode, my other brother played with the boys. Family.

At the Emergency Department, Aimee was receiving breathing treatments, fighting her mask and looking pitiful. She kept rasping juice….drink…..go…..no and we could only hold her, and try to distract her, and keep her from pulling at her lines.

Her tests started to come back. Negative for flu. Positive for RSV. Chest x-ray shows right lower lobe pneumonia. She was still breathing so fast. Her heart was beating 180 times each minute. Faster than a newborn. Grunting. Retracting.

Albuterol, Xopenex, repeat, repeat. No significant response. The doctor came in and said Aimee needed to be transferred to a Pediatric ICU for close observation and high-flow blended oxygen.

I tried to get Ricky his backpack and phone charger before the transport team arrived, but had just pulled into our driveway when he said they were there. He went with them, and I told the boys what was going on and started getting things together.

Aimee was well cared for. We all were. The high-flow oxygen was holding her airway open, providing positive pressure. She stopped grunting, which had been her attempt to stent her own airway. She had been working so, so hard. The first night, I slept in the chair, pulled right up to her crib, lulled to sleep by the knowledge that she was on monitors and they would alarm if anything went wrong. I was so grateful for that. It was like having that first newborn–just needing to know that they’re still breathing until you get used to the idea that they’ll be okay.

Ricky and I switched off, twenty-four hours each. Aimee was a little better each day, and we texted each other updates. O2 down to 6. Back up to 8–she started grunting again. Down to 7. Down to 6 now. Clear liquid diet. O2 at 3. Soft diet. Assessments every 4 hours now. Watching Dora. 

We couldn’t eat in the room, so I talked with other parents in the kitchenette over our food, asking about each others’ babies, offering well-wishes. You feel a bond with other parents whose kids are suffering, and walls break down a bit. You recognize the same tired, brave look in their eyes.

After four days, she was transferred to the regular pediatric floor. No more glass door and constant lights. Oxygen at 2. Regular diet. These markers of progress being checked off, one by one. Little victories.

On the morning of Christmas Eve, she was lively enough to video chat. Nicky did his silly slapstick routines and it was the first time in a week we had seen her smile. Oh there you are, little girl. We’ve been missing you.

I packed up the boys and we made the now very familiar drive into downtown Baltimore, and went up to the family lounge outside the unit to bring Ricky his lunch. To our surprise and delight, both boys were allowed to come in for a visit (Silas with a mask, since he’d been coughing) and Aimee lit up.

A few days earlier, I’d been invited, along with other parents in the PICU, to upstairs and “shop” for any kids on my list. A volunteer handed me five tickets and took me to a ballroom filled with toys (and very nice toys at that). I chose some things for the kids and took my gifts to a row of more smiling volunteers who wrapped them for me. I put them in the corner of Aimee’s room, thinking maybe we’d have a chance to open them. At that point, she wasn’t excited about anything, so I knew it might not happen.

There is something magical about more than one child in a room. They speak to each other differently than we can. So when Aimee and Nicky and Silas were together, the mood changed completely and their two tired parents felt a new energy.

Since we had this unexpected time together, we (giddily) told the kids we had a surprise for them and pulled out the presents. It was a much sweeter moment than I’d thought to hope for.

We had our Aimee back.

Even though we were able to go home later that evening, taking our girl with us, that moment was what made it Christmas. There is no better gift than having your people all together in one room.

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