A Prayer for the Meantime

Hi there, Lent.  Three years, three countries, and twenty moves later, here you are, Lent again.  I am not feeling very spiritual.  I’ve lost twelve percent of my already-minimal bodyweight trying new treatments, so fasting is out of the question.  My online job gives me 24 hour notice for shifts and cancellations, so there is little sense of rhythm to each week.  My desk looks like some giant grabbed a bookshelf from the library, a filing cabinet from an insurance agent, and shook them upside down until adequately dispersed.  So far I haven’t found the energy to make order from this chaos.  But I miss SparrowFeasting and Lent feels like a good time to come back here.

Last Sunday I went to church for the first time in months.  The warmer weather brought my pain levels down to manageable, the sun was shining, and riding the bus for two hours seemed endurable.  On the bus, we sat with our Karen refugee friends in the bouncy back seats and made ESL small talk.  During the sermon, which is traditionally when I get my panic attacks, it probably looked like I was taking notes furiously like a Serious Christian, but I was really journaling nonstop and trying not to listen to the pastor droning on about penal substitution.  I sang along with the hymns by focusing on good vocal technique from my college choir days.  I felt numb, quiet, distant.  So far so good.

Then the missionaries from South Africa got up and spoke about the refugee crisis in Sudan and the camps in Ethiopia, where they’re headed.  They talked about how God was leading them, and how they had prayed to be sent where no one else wanted to go.  That’s when I started to feel myself crack open.  But I thought I could keep the pieces together.  Until I was kneeling at the altar, and my newly ordained friend Mike was pressing the styrofoam cracker into my hand and saying “The body of our Lord Jesus Christ keep you in everlasting life,” and suddenly I felt all those cracks and fissures fall open and my gooey wet insides spilling out all over the place.  I looked like I was deeply moved about how much Jesus loves me, running from the sanctuary sobbing, but really I was standing in my own grave staring at the dead pieces of myself, asking “where is this everlasting life?”

Later B asked if I’m experiencing grief again from losing my music.  “That’s only part of it.  I feel like I died,” I tell him, sobbing over my leftovers at the kitchen table.  “I miss being me.  I don’t know how to move on because I don’t know who I am any more.”

This Lent I’m working through Beginning Again: Benedictine Wisdom for Living with Illness by Mary C. Earle.  The first reflection exercise asked us to make a list of our losses, and I got stuck here.  I added to the list for about a month and cried every time I looked at it.  The next exercise invited reflection on new life, new beginnings, but I couldn’t do it, and I put the book aside for a while.  Today I came back, to the chapter called “Dying and Rising.”  Going to my list of losses, I prayed them in litany form, like this:

“I name before God the loss of my ____.”
“Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my former life.”

Each entry on the list became a verse, a prayer.  Some of them seemed contradictory, yet exactly right: “I name before God the loss of my faith.  Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my former life.”

I was surprised to find this deeply grounding and calming.  I am trying to let go, but I cannot force acceptance.  I am searching for perspective, but I cannot create sight.  Today, this is a prayer for the meantime, a prayer for now.

Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my former life.

Tall Spirituality

I’ve been contemplating the story of Jesus and the bent woman in Luke 13:10-17. (Contemplation – “anything that dismantles illusions.”)  The story started to weave its way into my summer through Phileena Heuertz’ book Pilgrimage of a Soul, and it’s still dismantling me.

Do you know the story?  It’s a very simple tale, happening smack in the middle of complicated religious politics around empire and oppression and intrigue, a simple suffering.  There was this woman at the synagogue where Jesus was teaching, and she was bent double.  She couldn’t straighten up at all, and it had been like that for eighteen years.  Eighteen years of looking at dirt, feet, dust in the eyes, of nobody looking you in the face, of choking on your water.  Jesus sees her, stops what he’s doing, calls her forward and tells her she’s free.  Then he puts his hands on her and she straightens up for the first time in eighteen years.  Thank God, she says.

There’s more to the story, actually.  It ends like a lot of other Jesus stories, with some people thinking he’s the best ever and some people wanting to kill him, and some in between just wishing he’d fix the government already.  What stands out to me, though, is the simple part.  There’s remarkably little theologizing going on, no talk of faith or repentance, no question of whether she’d rather stay bent in half like that.  If there’s faith, it’s that she came forward when she was called, probably embarrassed to shuffle awkwardly through the men’s section of the gathering, probably in pain.  If there’s repentance, it’s that she left behind the posture that had surely come to feel normal, a posture that made her hard to know, that hid her face from the looks of contempt or pity.  Now there would be no escaping the angry controversy, no slipping under the radar.  She faced her community, perhaps for the first time, and spoke simply: Thank God.

It reminded me of a conversation I had years ago, back when the pain was just starting to eclipse me.  I was already tired of the ambiguity, the controversy of whether God wanted to heal me or not, the pressure to have enough faith to get better already.  I wanted to disappear.  One afternoon I was sitting in the living room of an Alexander Technician, working on a bone-hard tension in my shoulders, and she put her hand on my bunched-up hunched-down neck and looked straight at me.  “Honor your height,” she said.  The conversation stuck with me because she didn’t tell me to try harder, pray harder, transcend my limitations.  She didn’t even tell me to get taller.  She just challenged me to honor the height I’d been given, to stop hiding from the pain.

I grew up thinking of sin in terms of pride, but focusing exclusively on pride can blind us to other ways we live in bondage.  When I choose to hide my true created self, my gifts and passions, delights and struggles, I sin.  Phileena calls this the sin of sensuality.  Sensuality isn’t just the selfish pursuit of good feelings; it can also be the compulsive avoidance of bad feelings (e.g. rejection, disappointment).

Straightening up is a fearful thing.  “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?”  Marianne Williamson counters, “Actually, who are you not to be?  You are a child of God.  Your playing small does not serve the world.  There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.  We are all meant to shine, as children do.  We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. . . .  As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” (A Return to Love, 190-1)

The story of the straightened woman has been causing me to look at the many areas of my life that I am hunching.  Some of these areas come from a failure to honor my height, a self-effacing false humility so often praised in Christian culture.  Some of these areas are so normal for me that I can’t straighten up on my own, bent down as I am in the grip of painful illness, of others’ expectations, of fear.  Just like her, I need Jesus to put his hands on me and set me free.  “Jesus’ healing of her meant a strengthening of her spine to stand up straight.  She didn’t need to be broken of pride but to be broken of what shackled her in a posture of oppression.” (Pilgrimage 39)

As I type this, sitting by a lake, a heron has just paid me a visit, landing in a great feathery kafuffle on the dock.  She looks rather surprised to find me here, and cocks her head a while as if to ask if I am fishing, then turns to scrutinize the murky shallows for a snack.  I notice her gangly grace and her impossibly long neck stretched up to see me.  I stretch my neck up, up to my full five foot two height, and smile back.

Favorite Things

I have been noticing that I write more out of necessity than discipline.  I write when I feel like I’ll explode with pain or emotion or ideas.  However, the explosions of late (blogged and otherwise) have been pretty serious all around, and sometimes downright dour.  So, just to shake things up a bit, I’d like to share with you about something really good that happened to me today.  First, you need to know about a few of my favorite things:

1.) Clean Laundry.  This can be harder than it looks.  No, I don’t currently wash our clothes in a river or carry water from a well.  But laundry in our apartment complex is still a delicate balance of good timing (finding an unused machine) and good luck (finding a functional machine).  B and I had a combined total of seven trips to the laundry room today.  You see, you are very lucky if the neighbor isn’t doing the family washing for her children and grandchildren and their cousins (trip one and two).  You are also lucky if you remember the right number of quarters (trip three and four).  And you should count yourself especially blessed if the machine you choose isn’t the one burping out soapy liquid and linty fuzz (trip five and six).  All in all, when you persevere through adversity and plead with the maintenance company and finally bring back that basket of clean(er) laundry (trip seven), well, it’s a triumph.  It’s one of my Favorite Things.

2.) Dry Laundry.  The driers in our laundry room derive their title from the comparative adjectival rather than gerundive.  That is, they are not “machines that cause clothes to be dry but machines that make clothes… more dry.  Which means air-drying is a necessary complement in the laundry process.  Now, in order to appreciate the luxury of dryness you have to keep in mind that Portland often has more water than air in the inhabited atmosphere.  Which is why today’s sunshine contributed remarkably to my laundry being dry and lovely and mildew-free, all in an afternoon.

3.) Neighbor Kids.  Our apartment courtyard isn’t much to speak of (lone maple; giant dirt patch; small grass patch; concrete swath), but the kids here make it into a wonderland.  All it takes is a stick to wave or a ball to toss or perhaps a shared scooter.  Tag requires neither toys nor shoes nor language skills, as all ages are invited into the playtime.  I love these kids.

Today, all three of these delightful things happened at once.  So I took a picture.

What are you grateful for today?

Dragon Journal

Today my dragon has returned.  Enormous, red-hot iron claws in my sides and armpits.  Breathlessly tight when he squeezes, fading into distant bee stings when he relaxes his grip.

Typing, talking, thinking is difficult.  Every word must strain against this lizard-hug. 

My body becomes a tiny mouse, captured prey pierced through and snatched up to dizzying heights, ready to be devoured upon landing.

To what end this mad flight?  Neither dragon nor hawk carries me to this devouring, my suffering nourishes no creature.  There is no moral of the story here.

What is the point of saying “here I am” when I am precisely nowhere?  What is the point of writing about pain?

There’s a story about God being pierced all over and suspended above the lovely solid earth, a story about God becoming human, joining us in no-man’s-land.  If there is the grace of God in this world it must be found here.  God must be here in my devouring nothing-place of pain, spinning above the earth in these claws.

Help My Unbelief

I want to believe, O God,
that the morning will push back the night.
I want to believe, O God,
that the stone will roll fully away.
I want to believe, O God,
that the tomb will hold only angels,
that the women will come to behold,
that the others will come to believe;
and I, along with them, O God…
God, help my unbelief.
Amen.

(Pamela Hawkins, The Awkward Season, 90)

Feelin’ Good

Outside there is a tree
Planted years before I came here
A small bird singing there, she’s in love with the sky
A small bird singing there, she’s in love

(from “Painter,” Mia Friedman, in album “Unruly Heart“)

I feel good today.  And by good I mean great.  And by great I don’t just mean that I think I’ll maybe make it for a few more hours or minutes.  I mean, I really feel good.

Pain’s still there but I have energy for living and dealing.  I cooked breakfast and lunch and dinner and cleaned up from it all, and it’s only 1pm.  That’s a record.  I wrote approximately one billion thank-you notes.  That’s also a record.  I had an argument with my husband in which I a.) initiated the conversation and b.) stayed honestly on-topic and c.) stayed calm and focused without tears, shame or panic.  That’s really a record.  Besides all those impressive things, I did homework and drank tea.  Basically I am feeling really good right now at things like life and marriage and getting up in the morning.

Flushed with the glow of normalcy, I opened my journal for perspective earlier today.  I must be “getting better”, I thought as I searched for a pattern or an upward trend that would confirm the new season.  Did I do something different, could I pinpoint a reason for the change?  Nope.  I just feel good today.

Feeling good comes with temptations.  I’m tempted to work till I drop.  I’m tempted to talk myself out of feeling good so I won’t be disappointed when it changes.  I’m tempted to think so hard about an explanation for feeling good that I forget to feel it.  And I’m tempted to moralize and spiritualize and teach myself something important about perseverance and perspective, but that often oversimplifies and falsifies the gritty grace of the moment.

Sometimes humility waits to ask “why?” or even “what can I learn?”  Sometimes humility just says “thank you.”  I might go find that small bird and love the sky with her for a while.

Sparrow Song

Reflections on humility this Lenten season, along with my previous post about begging, reminded me of a friend’s song that you might enjoy, available here.

Nate tells the story behind the song:

I had been in one of Ecuador’s famous market towns where I saw a toothless old lady begging for money. I put a dollar coin in her hand and she stared at me as though she didn’t understand. Her blank stare unnerved me and I walked away. I later realized that I had tried to make myself feel good by “improving” her condition and giving her money. I never stopped to think how very much like that old woman I was. I realized what a humble and powerless beggar I must seem to God and how dependent I am on him. I also realized how much better it is to identify with someone than it is to “fix” them. God provided the deepest identification through Jesus that also fostered the best solution to my sinfulness. I wish I would have spent more time with that old woman, trying to understand what God was teaching me through her.

I’m a Beggar Too

The other day I passed a woman begging.  She was just like me, same height, same narrow shoulders, maybe same age.  I wanted to spend time hearing her story, wanted to give her my full attention, wanted to tell her she is important.  But the street corner was bustling, family was waiting, time pressed, and I let the momentum sweep me away.

Later I related to my husband how helpless I felt, how much I wanted to hear her real needs and do what I could, yet how awkward and contrived it felt to resist the momentum around me.  She was important and deserved to be valued.  “We can’t give everyone what they deserve,” he reminded me, “but we can acknowledge their value in small ways, like eye contact.”  He has a good friend who lived without a home or shelter for a time, and this friend says the most dehumanizing part of begging was being ignored.  It’s fine if you can’t help, he said, but the problem comes when passersby cope with their own discomfort by feigning blindness.

As a person living with chronic pain, this makes sense to me.  Poverty, like pain, can be corrosive, dehumanizing, can make you feel less valuable or even less real than other people.  The hardest part of pain is the isolation, the invisibility.  Sometimes nothing makes it better and nothing can communicate what it’s like.  I don’t want sympathy, or vitamins, or therapy, I want understanding.  Understanding is often impossible, but it does make a world of difference to be seen.  A smile, a hug, a simple “How’s your energy today?” or “I like you” or “sorry that sucks” means somebody sees me, I do exist in this world, even if the pain threatens to dissolve my experience of myself.

I Wish I Knew

“Why should she be so troubled?  She cannot be afraid.”  No true nun is afraid of death.  “I wish I knew when I was going to die,” ninety-six-year-old Dame Frances Anne often said.  “I wish I knew.”

“Why, Dame?”

“Then I should know what to read next.”

(Rumer Godden, In This House of Brede, 74)

I’m old today.  I’m so old I lost track of my age; maybe 85 or 90 years or thereabouts.  I move slower, think slower, forget things.  Sometimes I feel wise and benevolent, sometimes short-tempered, always a step removed from the bustling societal flow.  My joints ache and my muscles are weak; simple tasks require courage and effort, like showering, opening a door, greeting the neighbor, rinsing a dish.

Yesterday I was a young twenty-something.  I had energy, enthusiasm even.  I graded tests, studied literary theory, discussed gendered culture, hugged my husband often and laughed at a starling who was imitating a robin-song perfectly but still looking unmistakably like a starling.  B and I daydreamed about the future over dinner and job applications.  I felt hopeful.

Today I’m apprehensive about being this old and impatient with the change.  What if my pain and fatigue stops cycling and just stays bad?  What if I’m a professor and I can’t stand up in class or even hold a pen?  What if I go crazy?

Dame Frances’ comment was a comfort this evening.  Not “whatever shall become of me?”, neither fear nor denial of mortality here.  A simple faith, this, assured of God’s care, attending to the task at hand.  I shall adopt this question for tonight.  Not “whatever shall become of me?” but “whatever shall I read?”

A Grace of Noodles

“Happy no.”  Our question hangs bewildered at this unexpected answer.  Rayna’s* eyes glance helplessly between us as she speaks, appealing to her son for translation, and BJ struggles to communicate with his own limited English why his mother had not been happy at her wedding.  His parents’ marriage was arranged, and they had been refugees for most of their married lives.  Happy no.

Last night was our first in-home tutoring session with Rayna and her family.  Our neighborhood has a refugee service organization, and we’d been trying for months to get matched with a family for English practice.  Now my husband B and I sat crosslegged on the carpet with our new friends, making awkward attempts at conversation to assess their language abilities.

Rayna continues her story, often reiterating “father die” to explain her life’s turning-point, when she had been taken out of second grade to help her family with the farming work.  Her narrative is punctuated by death and loss, but she does not have enough vocabulary to name her emotions.  I make a mental note to write a lesson plan for emotive vocab next week and simultaneously take stock of my own feelings.  Inadequate.  Sad.  Frustrated.  Feeble.

“Where are you from?”  We practice our greetings.  When I ask teen BJ this question, he says “I am from Nepal,” proudly piecing the sentence together correctly, but his smile fades at his mother’s rebuke.  “No Nepal,” she insists, “Bhutan.”  BJ spent his whole life in the refugee camps of Nepal, the family language is Nepalese, and the family was a Nepalese ethnic minority in Bhutan, so it makes sense to me that he identifies more with Nepal than his parents’ homeland.  This appears to be a painful point of tension between them, and BJ soon disappears quietly into the kitchen.

Rayna’s husband, Stan, joins us for the lesson.  (Before this meeting, we hadn’t been told Rayna’s name, so we’d affectionately referred to the couple as Stan and Wife.)  We continue practicing greetings.  Stan is frustrated, sharing homework from a refugee English class that he had carefully copied and understood not a word.  We try to practice listening and speaking, but Stan is bound to his notebook, loudly reading every letter over and over, trying to forcibly break the code.  We cannot get past “hello,” and he jumps up to pace in frustration.

Grace came in noodle form.  BJ brought out Nepalese chow mein and everyone began to feel a little better.  The family was welcoming their awkward new English teachers by sharing dinner with us.  We practiced food vocab (tomato, chilli, spicy) and put our new words into useful sentences (I like noodles!).  After a long day of work and no time for food, I was prodigiously hungry and grateful for their hospitality, especially after this frustrating first meeting.

Grace came again, this time from Stan.  As B and I put on our shoes at the door, Rayna asked if we had a car, since it was raining heavily.  Stan’s eyes twinkled and, unprompted, he attempted what may be his first English joke.  “My legs my car!” he said, slapping his ankles.  The tense gathering erupted into an appreciative roar, and we left our first tutoring session laughing in the rain.

*The family’s names have been changed to protect their identity.

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