Benediction

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The world lives by the blessing of God and of the righteous and thus has a future. Blessing means laying one’s hands on something and saying, Despite everything, you belong to God. This is what we do with the world that inflicts such suffering on us. We do not abandon it; we do not repudiate, despise or condemn it. Instead we call it back to God, we give it hope, we lay our hand on it and say: May God’s blessing come upon you, may God renew you; be blessed, world created by God, you who belong to your Creator and Redeemer.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The world sours,
o’er fraught with dangers,
sinister and taut.

warm,
summer,
stupefied.

no salve or sieve
on bloody streets-
surreal scenes.

no word
for the anguished mother,
hard sand, bent knees.

no pages of letters
in mailboxes,
on doorsteps,
tucked on windshields,
arrive
in the aftermath.

No prose.
Only gravity’s
vocabulary,
waves in distant,
silent, space—
Gaping sleeves of vestments
raised—

the
Benediction—
a laying on
of hands.

 

Image via Universe Today

Still Point

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“I will not fail you, my love. I will continue on the path we shared, and I know you will be there to help me, as you always were. And when we meet again at journey’s end, and we laugh together once more, I will have a thousand things to tell you.” Queen Noor of Jordan

Not often, but every now and then, I stop and wonder what you think of your little girl at age seven. I become aware, maybe just for a moment, on the walk back from dropping her off at school, at the grocery store picking up snacks for her class for their field trip, or sitting here writing, of the ringing of your absence. It is like when you sometimes hear a ringing in your ears that only you tune into, some other frequency, and then it is gone. “Do you hear that?” It is like that. The moment is kind of like T.S. Eliot’s “still point of the turning world,”still and sacred.

The baby you left is a girl. What would you think of her? How would you interact with her? Would you ever scold her when she has her meltdowns or would you have let me always be the mean parent? Would you have laughed when she’s hyper and overly silly, or would you have told her to calm down? Would you have walked her up to school somedays? Today she picked two buttercups and gave them to me calling them “our mother/daughter flowers.” What would she have offered you? I don’t think it panders to my grief or means I’m going backwards to have these thoughts, but rather it feels holy—to wonder, to give you space- just for this still point of the turning world before I get on with the tasks of an ordinary Wednesday.

She is so much yours, in appearance, but also in personality. She struggles with playing classical piano like you did, but she loves to sit down and play songs she knows by ear, or compose beautiful things. I can hear that she hears a lot more, and once her skills pick up, it will be lovely for those to come out too. One day I tell her that I can tell she hears a lot more, and she asks, “How did you know?” Just like you, she is a bit of a music snob and may have your perfect pitch- she can’t understand why everyone in her music class at school is singing so out of tune. She loves to sing and does so fairly loudly just about all the time. She has a 40’s lilt to her voice sometimes that is quite lovely. Her piano teacher says her rhythm is amazing; she definitely does not get that from me.

Like you, she can really eat a lot, especially for her 50 pound body – five pancakes, four tacos, 3 slices of pizza- but I suspect she has your metabolism and will never be overweight. Just like you, she picks the sesame seeds off of her burger buns. Isn’t that strange?

Remember all of the inventions you tried to patent? She too is coming up with new ideas and enterprises every day. One day it’s a store on our porch selling small origami chairs she makes, another she makes beaded bracelets with tiny labels that are stamped “Handmade,” and she has this cool idea for a transparent bubble just big enough to surround our bodies that we’d get in and hover up to school in. We’d adjust the temperature in winter and there’d be buttons to change the design. She talks about this a lot. Her little shoes, I realize one day, are wearing down on the bottoms just the way yours did, slightly on the left.

She loves to read and is always on the highest level at school. We’re on the fifth book of The Chronicles of Narnia for our nightly story time together. Her voice starts to quiver sometimes when she gets to the passages about Aslan. Sometimes her eyes tear up. “He turned and saw, pacing beside him, taller than the horse, a Lion. The horse did not seem to be afraid of it or else could not see it. It was from the Lion that the light came. No one ever saw anything more terrible or beautiful.” “More terrible or beautiful,” she repeats slowly and quietly, looking up at me.

She loves God and writes to him in her diary at night sometimes and listens too, and writes what she hears back: “You are loved.”

She sleep walks a bit- once I found her in the corner of the kitchen wandering around, and she hates going to bed at night- more like me than you. She has a hard time getting up on weekdays but she is up early on weekends at her “art studio” creating something. She remembers a lot of her dreams and from what she tells me, she’s a lucid dreamer. She’s discovered, she says, that if she eats anything in a dream, it causes her to wake up, so if the dream is good, she refuses any of the food offered her in it, no matter how good it looks, or how tempting it is. “Just don’t eat it, whatever you do,” she says.

She loves languages. She has invented two of her own, and has solidified one enough that we can have basic conversation in it. She is also really eager to learn Korean and so far I’ve taught her the alphabet. She’s fascinated with how words came to be and we are constantly looking up the etymology of many. She claims her fish are the most educated in the world because she’s taught them the parts of speech.

She’s bored at school and hates being condescended to by the teachers and the lunch aids. She is an excellent observer and very intuitive when it comes to people. She can always tell when a grown-up is disingenuous.

Her teacher tells her she’s in her desk too much. She tells me she was trying to crush some purple flowers she found to figure out how to make perfume in there, but she wasn’t successful; she made purple dye instead. She breaks off her pencil erasers and collects them in a ziploc bag in there. She even trims off the silver top with her scissors and forms it into tiny hearts. She calls it metal-working. She creates a sign out sheet for the crayons classmates want to borrow at her desk too. They sign out their name and the color they’re borrowing. “So if someone asks for, say…gold, I can just check and see who has gold…” she acts it out for me like she’s looking down a list. I can see why her teacher tells her she’s in her desk too much.

She has your charm and the other-worldly joy that I fell in love with in you. How can I be sad when a little girl announces that she’s going to skip for the next month everywhere she goes in the house? Or when she tells me she created the “World’s Smallest Pencil” at school and put a little sign next to it on her desk that said so. She loves when the spring ants appear in the cracks of our walkway and begs for crumbs so she can feed them. She’ll watch them for hours. Once we noticed together that all of the ants were carrying particles out of the hole, but only one was trying to bring something in. She thought he was confused and still laughs about it when we recount that story. I was recently re-organizing all of her artwork and came across something from Pre-K. The teacher had written “My Christmas Wish” on the top of the paper and she drew a giant black ant and told her teacher to title it, “Black Ant.” Later she had told me, she started to draw and it just turned into an ant.

There is so much more I could tell you about her. It would takes days and thousands of pages. But my still point is ending. The world is turning. I need to go grocery shopping and clean up, do some freelance work, and maybe take a walk. But oh, there is this. She loves her dad, and misses him very much. Her eyes fill with tears when she remembers your “disappearance” and the dreams she had up to a year later when you would disappear, the one where she woke up screaming at night in her crib for you, saying that she wanted to play with you. So, there is that. She loves you still.

Even though I incorporate stories of you and bits of your personality in our daily conversation, even though I’ve compiled a huge book of letters and words from other people about you, there are afternoons where she randomly says, “But what was he like?” The other day she realizes she’s never seen me be affectionate with a man. “Did you ever do those long kisses like in romantic movies? I love those,” she says. Yeah, we did. The next day I find these old photo booth pics we took and put them up on my bookshelf. She notices them right away, and seems pleased. She picks them up and sees us.

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Turning, turning, turning, calling me back to busyness and to-do lists. I will tell you more at the next still point. That is all for now.

Something Beautiful

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“You must write for yourself, above all. That is your only hope of creating something beautiful.” Flaubert

The other day on my walk around the park, I saw a man pull up in his car, run out with a basketball, and start shooting baskets on the basketball court. The way he ran out of his car, he could’ve been about 14 years of age, but in reality, he was closer to fifty, possibly even quite a bit older. His unabashed child-like sprint to the courts captured my attention. He had grey, balding hair, and his style of dress channeled Mr. Rogers: tan pants, a red cardigan over his shirt, and navy blue Ked-like sneakers with white laces. I watched his uninhibited, youthful enthusiasm, and I couldn’t help but smile. Then he made a basket and the ball got stuck in the net. I went off my trail to ask if he wanted the basketball in my car to try to get it out. “Oh, no, I’ll get it!” he said, and he wanted me to stay and watch. Sure enough, he jumped and reached with all his strength, once missing, but getting the ball to move the second time. It took a third time before it fell out of the net. I congratulated him, and asked if he had been a basketball player. He said no, to which I asked, “Just for fun then?” “Hope so…” was his reply.

As I continued my walk, I felt a bit foolish. Why had I assumed that this man must’ve had some important association with basketball to be playing it at a park on a nice day? He didn’t look like a retired professional player. But he was a basketball player by virtue of the fact that he was playing basketball. Yet, I wasn’t just making small talk- I was honestly searching for the “reason” he was doing that because it seemed odd, mostly because it is uncommon. As children, we do many things that aren’t our profession and aren’t a means of getting to a particular goal. We do them just because they’re fun or because we enjoy them. I always correct grownups who see my daughter creating something and tell her, “Maybe you’ll be an artist when you grow up!” “She already is an artist,” I interject.

As adults, we become a bit sheepish about bounding onto a basketball court, smearing paint on a canvas, or even skipping down a street. We say we get to re-experience childhood through our kids, but mostly it’s through our kids’ eyes. We’re mostly standing on the sidelines at soccer games, at the playground, during music lessons or gymnastics. We are often too exhausted to go down the slide after them, or to dig in the dirt unless we’re actually planting flowers. Granted, there are things that need to get done. We can’t bound onto the basketball court every day, but when we do, how can we hold onto the child-like joy of being in the moment, creating or playing in the flow, and not simply for the result or the title?

Audrey loves to compose at the piano, and when I mentioned it to her piano teacher as he was leaving our house the other day, he told us that it was great she was composing, and that she shouldn’t feel bad if what she composes isn’t good and she doesn’t like the result. He’s quite a serious player and a perfectionist. He also told her to keep going because he had stopped composing at some point and it was hard to pick it back up. What was interesting to me was that the thought that something she had composed wasn’t “good” hadn’t even occurred to her (or me). She just loves to sit there and produce whatever is in her soul at that moment and make it visible in the notes and chords. I love to hear it. Some days it’s particularly striking and I try to sneak behind a corner and video tape it, but most of the time, I just let her be. I can hear her joy and satisfaction in the rhythm.

As a writer, I’ve recently been envious of the great writers who lived before the internet. I want to write beautiful things and sit and spend hours and maybe years writing them. Nothing brings me greater satisfaction than crafting words, painful and slow as it sometimes is. But today there is a lot of pressure for writers to perform- to have a platform. If you want to be published, you need to demonstrate that you’ve already written guest posts here and there. You need to promise publishers you’ll have endorsement quotes on your books from this writer and that writer. Did Milton have to worry about platform while he penned Paradise Lost? Dickinson surely did not as she tied her words in a ribbon and placed them in her desk. Neither did O’Connor. I suppose they had other challenges.

But something about platform innately goes against the writing goals I have. Fifty percent of a writer’s time today ends up being self-promotion and publicity- marketing. There is so much writing being published online that if you want to gain readership, you must write often. There is a pressure to produce. But writing takes time. It isn’t really a suitable item for a to-do list because it isn’t something you can check off as easily as grocery shopping or laundry. I am conscious that I am writing all the time- even when I’m not sitting at the computer. I tell an editor friend over lunch recently that for me writing is a little like carrying around a basket and collecting things on these different ideas and when the basket is full, I know it’s time to sit down and write. Sometimes it takes years before that basket is full for a particular piece of writing. I tell my writing students that at least half of the writing process should be thinking. Do not let me see you sit down and start writing immediately after you’ve been given an assignment, I say.

The New Yorker article/review on Julia Cameron’s new book took an interesting slant on the issue. We’re living in a time where more people have been told they can pursue their passion, and where more people are working multiple freelance jobs instead of one 9-5 job. Everything we do is seen as something that can or should be monetized. “Oh, you write a blog? Do you make any money at it?” “Oh- you should open up an Etsy store and try to sell those!” While I do love all of the avenues that are available for creative people to offer their art to the public- we must hold on to the value of creating in private, for the sheer joy of it. The New Yorker describes the predicament this way:

If you’re learning piano, you must try to record the jingle for that commercial your friend directed. If you develop a curiosity about a niche topic, you must start an online newsletter dedicated to it, work to build your audience, and then try to monetize the newsletter. If you have a nice speaking voice, you must start a podcast. We’re encouraged to be “goal-oriented” and rewarded with outsize praise for everything we’ve accomplished, and so we feel that we need to turn every creative pursuit into a professional one. This makes some of Cameron’s lessons more urgent than ever. But, unlike earlier generations of readers, we don’t need Cameron to protect us from the voices telling us to doubt ourselves. What we need, instead, are new voices granting us permission to try new things in private—and then leave them be.

The truth is, I don’t want to write just to publish. I want to write because I love words and because nothing satisfies me more than laying them out on a page and then chipping away at them until I’ve created something that articulates well something I may have brought to the piece or discovered through it.

When I was in college I was serious about pursuing singing and songwriting. I spoke with someone in the industry when my college singing group stopped by Nashville on a tour. He told me that some people play in front of thousands of people all at once because they are famous, but some people play in prisons going from prison cell to prison cell with just their guitar, and they too end up playing for thousands of people too- just not all at once. Sometimes my daughter hints at a desire to be famous. She knows that her father was in the spotlight and played with “famous people” like Coldplay and Katie Perry. She liked singing “Fight Song” with Rachel Platten this past fall and listening to the applause of hundreds of people at Brooklyn Bowl. “Don’t try to famous,” I tell her. “Try to be excellent at something and then offer it to the world and to God.”

In a beautiful book I recently finished, Jerry Sittser touches upon how empty fame has become in recent years. Where people used to be known for their genius and achievement, many today are known only for their celebrity image. Where people used to be known for their character, people now aim to be known for their personality. More than mere notoriety or being known, he asks what we will be known for?  He actually stopped most of his speaking engagements about the accident that had taken three of his family members after he realized he’d rather invest himself in being the best parent and professor. He goes on to describe the life of an African nun working at an orphanage. After she describes her very simple life of prayer, meals, and serving the children, she says, “This is my life!” and “the tone of her words and the expression on her face said it all; she felt utterly peaceful and privileged to live such a lovely life.” Surely, he decides her “hidden faithfulness” is much more well chosen than his “celebrity suffering” had been.

What does a life of hidden faithfulness look like?  It doesn’t necessarily mean you hide your art or your play from the world. If you are faithful in the ordinary days of sitting down to put the thoughts into words, to play with the keys on the piano, or feel the tennis ball hit that sweet spot in your racquet, faithful in your playing and your joy, it may naturally expand outward to the world. But that is never the goal.

These days when I walk around that path where I saw the man playing basketball, I don’t do it for long-term health reasons as much as I do it just to feel my legs move. I write because I enjoy the act, the carving of words, the satisfaction of reading a well-crafted sentence aloud. O Connor’s words are framed above where I write, “You do not write the best you can for the sake of art, but for the sake of returning your talent increased to the invisible God to use or not use as he sees fit.” God himself- invisible. Those words urge me not to worry about how my words are received or revealed, but just to write them. I hope I can come to them, even though I’m sometimes stressed or weary from my other daily demands, with the same kind of gratitude that Mr. Rogers man ran onto the court, or the same way my seven-year old says, “Oooh, I like that chord…” when she hits the piano keys. I hope if I am known for anything, it will be this hidden faithfulness, this love of creating something beautiful.

Discovery

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When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you, till it seems as though you could not hang on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn. Harriet Beecher Stowe

A couple of weeks ago I took my daughter to an exhibit on King Tut in the city. She had been learning about the Egyptian civilization this year, and I thought the exhibit, which created a life-size replica of King Tut’s tomb, would be a great visual for what she’d already learned. It was interesting for me as well, as I didn’t really know the story of how the tomb was discovered. It turns out, it was a story of perseverance- like many great discoveries.  A man named Howard Carter was the archaeologist who finally found the tomb. He had been intent on finding it since he was a child and the Egyptian tombs first captured his imagination. He teamed up with and was financed by a wealthy English aristocrat named Lord Carnarvan, who just happens to have lived in the Downton Abbey castle.

Carter had, I believe, six or seven areas in the Valley of the Kings where he was going to dig for the tomb, and for years he kept digging, finding- nothing. There was only one of those areas left when his financier was about to give up. That means that out of all of the areas he could have chosen to dig in, he chose the area where the actual tomb was last. But then just like that, after all of those years, a young worker hit upon something hard- a step…which led down to the intact, sealed tomb- just as it was left 3,000 years before. Carter persevered and he finally made his great discovery. Imagine, knowing what we now do, that he had given up after five or six years of digging in those other areas- not too far away from the real location of the tomb?  He would have been so close…and yet so far away.

We might also be close to that kind of treasure sometimes- often unbeknownst to us. But what if we give up right before we reach it?

Audrey’s been really struggling with piano this year. Last year she was learning to play by ear and cruised through the first book. She and I both loved the ease of playing learning by this method, but eventually she became bored playing the same repertoire over and over each night at practice time. I felt like the reading part of music was missing, and she was ready for it. So, we switched methods and found a different teacher. I knew, though, it’d be a really difficult transition for her to go from listening to CD’s and then playing songs to reading- note by note. The level of musicality would feel like it was going backwards instead of progressing, and it has felt that way. She’s been frustrated, and her teacher is a bit of a perfectionist, and she’s already a perfectionist- so she hasn’t been feeling any sense of accomplishment even though she did learn to read.

I was tempted to switch teachers again right away or even give up on piano altogether because I couldn’t take the nightly drama during practice time, but my mother in law suggested on Skype one Saturday morning that we stick it out and that sometimes you just have to get over the bump, and after that you’re stronger and better. This is the grit that is so highly touted today by psychologists as what it takes to really succeed. It’s also something I lacked, being one of those kids for whom many things came quite easily. When things have been easy and you come to a challenge, it feels like there must be some explanation- some other way around it.

So, with the decision made that we would stick it out, I noticed her practicing getting better and more disciplined. I noticed also that during her “composing” times, new and strikingly beautiful things were coming out of her as I peered from our hallway without being noticed. Piano was becoming an important emotional outlet for her. How could we have even though about quitting?

We’ve all heard of so many important or famous people who almost gave up on their dream but persevered. From Walt Disney and JK Rowling to Henry Ford and Bill Gates, the world is full of innovations and imaginative works that wouldn’t have been there if their creators had given up just a bit sooner than they did. Thomas Edison famously failed over 10,000 times to invent a commercially viable lightbulb but when he was asked if he felt like a failure or if he would give up, he replied, “Why would I feel like a failure? And why would I ever give up? I now know definitely over 9,000 ways an electric lightbulb will not work. Success is almost in my grasp.” It’s not just that we reach our goal by persistance, but we learn through our doggedness and failures- whether it be through process of elimination or by practicing until we have mastered something. “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm,” said Winston Churchill. “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer,” said Einstein.

At church a few weeks ago while I was thinking about all this, the pastor meditated on John chapter 21. It’s the third time the resurrected Christ appeared to his disciples. They had been fishing all night and caught nothing when they noticed a man on the shore. It was Jesus, but they did not recognize him- as was often the case after the Resurrection. He tells them, “Throw down your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they do this, they can barely haul in the net because it is so full of fish. After this, they recognize Him. Jesus says he’ll cook them the fish for breakfast and they drag over the net of 153 fish, “but even with so many the net wasn’t torn.” What if they had given up or refused to throw down their net as he suggested because, well, they’d already been trying all night. Not only would they have missed out on this tremendous catch- but they might just have missed out on the miracle of recognizing and seeing the man that they had seen crucified, alive again in the flesh- and shared an intimate, familial breakfast with him of bread and fish on the beach. It didn’t just take grit though for them to do that. It took faith, humility, and trust that maybe, just maybe, this stranger telling them to try again, knew something that they didn’t.

Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer-songwriter, and poet, says that before he quits writing a song he feels like he needs to invest all of himself in it and finish it in order to justify the quitting. (Brain Pickings)

Before I can discard the verse, I have to write it… I can’t discard a verse before it is written because it is the writing of the verse that produces whatever delights or interests or facets that are going to catch the light. The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines, he said.

That really is quite an investment to make, with very little certainty of return. But then again, doesn’t everything really worth discovering merit that inherent risk? Every book or long piece of writing begins with the idea. It may seem brilliant, but it must be fully worked through before the writer can really tell if it’s going to be any good. Every fisherman sets aside hours to make their catch, guaranteed nothing. The archaeologist Howard Carter had invested thousands of dollars, the work of many laborers, and years of his life in the discovery of Tut’s tomb, but he was promised nothing. Still, he had to see it through. Sometimes, as Harriet Beecher Stowe says, just when you feel like giving up, is just when the tide is about to turn. After Audrey stuck with her nightly piano practice for a few more weeks, I noticed a shift in both her discipline and creativity. I heard beautiful things that I hadn’t heard before coming out of her fingers. She had gotten over the bump and she had grown.

Are there times to give up? I guess there are, yes. But as Cohen says, I think you have to see it through as far as you can before you can discern whether this is one of those times. Finish cutting the gem so you can see if it’ll shine. Throw down the net one more time. Sit down at the piano or computer one more night. Your discovery might be very close. When Howard Carter finally got down to King Tut’s tomb and peered in through the broken rock, Lord Carnarvan, waiting eagerly, asked, “Well, do you see anything? What do you see?” to which Carter replied only this, “I see wonderful things…” What wonderful things, what treasures will we see if only we persevere, if only we hang on just a minute longer when everything else is telling us to just give up?”

Small Steps towards Incarnation

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Stars of the heart, now open wide!
All frozen roots that once had died,
rise again, oh rise!
from Carol of Hope by Jane Tyson Clement

I sit having brunch with a sweet friend who also happens to be widowed with two young children. I am telling her about part time work that I’ve recently accepted. “It’s such a small step,” I say. “but a big one…” she answers back with certainty and strength.

A couple of months later I order business cards with vintage typewriters on the front. I register for a writer’s conference where I might actually get some use out of them. I snap a picture of my business cards on my phone and send them to another friend. “It’s your business card!! AWESOME!!!” this very enthusiastic friend replies. “Small steps,” I say. “Small but huge,” she responds.

So many steps have been forced for so long. So many things had to be done that were all about letting go, ceding. So many lingering to-do lists about tearing down, raking up. The theme of small being large is not unfamiliar territory. Closing a shared bank account- small, but so huge. You keep the final banking slip. You can’t let that go also. Changing the sheets on a shared bed for the first time “after”: a simple act, but monumental. That takes nine months. Finding yourself sitting in the middle of that queen sized bed one afternoon four years later for the first time- in…the…middle. Small steps, but such a very long distance. You just sit there silently, gazing around at the strange, new topography.

I begin to move out of my foxhole. Last spring I printed out a sign that says “Small Steps Every Day” and leaned it against the books at my desk where I see it every time I sit here. “Nothing happens until something moves,” said Einstein. Small steps are movements towards being unstuck. A little like the steps I took in my Brooklyn neighborhood at 41 weeks pregnant trying to kick my body into labor to avoid being induced, down Ridge Boulevard and out to the pier where I could see the tip of Manhattan on one side and the Verrazano on the other. Labor started on the way home.

Even small steps can be very, very frightening. We don’t know exactly what we’ll birth when movement starts. We are moving out of what is known–even if it’s completely awful, it is known– into… what is unknown.

But once you have taken them, never underestimate the momentum set in motion by those first weak and wavering steps. It’s not just physics: mass and velocity. It’s the force of life itself- “all this juice and all this joy,” as Hopkins describes it in his poem, “Spring.”

What we’re really doing in these small steps is incarnating the invisible. That’s why it sometimes feels premature and awkward. To create a business card when you don’t really have a business?  Come up with a blog name when you have no blog?  Take a job when you have no idea where it’ll go? Only the Creator spoke things into being. Our first task was just the naming of things. We build more slowly- with scaffolding and cranes. But in the process of incarnation, we build a home for what we’re trying to call into being. We clothe the invisible so that we can see it.

I take a walk almost every day, but sometimes I plan it and have my workout clothes on and other times I squeeze it in my day and wear whatever I had on. I’ve found that when I’m wearing my workout clothes my walk is much more focused and productive. I put on the clothes of a walker or runner, and I am one. In a similar way, I recently hung up a bunch of quotes by writers I enjoy by my desk. I didn’t put them up there for decor or for anyone else. I was incarnating the writer in me- creating a home for the body of my work. I sit at the desk with quotes and photos of Didion and Plath beside me, and I am a writer.

The act of writing itself is an act of incarnation- to sit with trembling fingertips at keys or with pen in hand and to call forth something invisible. Each word is an incarnation of the idea. One does not know what one will birth and that can be downright frightening. Dorothy Sayers, in her important work, “The Mind of the Maker,” said mans’ creative process reflected the integral structure of the universe and is Trinitarian by nature: first, the Idea or imagining of the work; second, the Energy- or incarnation; third, the Power- the meaning of the work, often determined by its audience. She likened each part of the process to the Father, the Word, and the Spirit.  “When the writer’s Idea is revealed or incarnate by his Energy, then, and only then, can his Power work on the world,” wrote Sayers. The Idea is timeless and complete when it’s begun. But the Energy- that is the work part, and for me, often where I get stuck. I am never at a loss for ideas, with “writer’s block,” but I am often terrified of what I will birth. Will it live up to the Idea currently in my imagination? Or will it collapse like clothes with no body, no substance?

When I write I rarely go into it with resolve: “I’m going to sit down and write!” because that is just too scary to make known. I usually try to sneak in unbeknownst to myself by opening up a blank page and saying I’ll just write the title, and then getting up to make a cup of tea, write a few more words and then scroll around online looking for something for the house- a few more paragraphs and let me look something up in that book that might work here- and eventually I’ve lured myself in and hours have passed. If you must take your steps this way – so be it. It still works.

While Idea does not live in space, Energy incarnates Idea so that it lives in time-space.Be wary of letting ideas atrophy  because you lack the discipline or follow through to incarnate them. You can not take your steps in your mind.You must take them in time-space and make them material. Create the business card, paint the picture, play the piano keys. Because the creative act, whether you’re starting a business, making art, or recreating your own identity, takes place in space- your surroundings are often very important. Your physical space may be the home of your incarnation in many ways. That might be the “magic of tidying up” that the trendy Japanese organizer that made me start folding my socks instead of balling them up is speaking of.

For a long time now- over a year- my bedroom has been a mess- I mean, really a mess. I’ve been stepping over things to get into bed and sleeping next to a pile of stuff. I’d spoken about it with therapists and my best friend. They told me to start with one section. My friend told me to just donate it all and not try to sell it. “You’ll feel so much better,” she said. There were practical reasons for the mess- we have a small apartment and I’d been redoing my daughter’s whole room and while I was trying to sell all of her old toys and furniture- I shoved them in my room so the rest of the house could remain presentable for guests and livable for us.

Still, I have always been extremely neat and organized, so there also seemed to be something the draining energy of that room, with the door so often closed to hide its mess, was saying to me. I mentioned it to my 93 year old spiritual director the last time I saw her, and she suggested I sit in the space and ask God why it was like this. I realized there was very little of “me” in the room, and therefore little space for me. There was a ton of my daughter’s old clothes and toys bagged up, and there was a large desk that was my husband’s staring at me from the bed. No one sat at it and it just collected dust and other items on top.

In the room I saw a grieving woman and a mother, but I did not see myself. I had been hesitant to incarnate and make space for the new identity that was emerging. There are many reasons for that. I bagged up about six or seven big IKEA bags of stuff and donated it. I sold a few other things. There was a little improvement, but nothing striking. Then I took one of those small, but huge steps. I sold my husband’s desk. It was strange to see it gone, but immediately I felt that momentum kick in. Incarnation in present time-space takes Energy, and energy is drained when we are holding onto things from a past time-space. Every step forward is usually a step away from something else. I let my daughter sleep at her grandparent’s house and spent a few hours cleaning that room one Friday night. Surprisingly, what looked like such a mess only took a few hours to completely clean up.

In Glennon Doyle Melton’s memoir “Carry On, Warrior,” she talks about a similar clean-up after her first AA meeting. She describes how she and her sister sat on her bed in silence after the meeting looking around at her disastrous room which she describes as looking “as if my insides had spilled out onto the floor.” But her sister starts to pick up one piece of trash at a time, and then Glennon joins her, “We hung up every piece of clothing, wiped down every gritty surface, poured out every hidden bottle of booze. We worked silently, side by side, for two hours. Then we sat back on my bed and held hands. My room looked so different. It looked like a place where a girl might want to live…it was the beginning.”

Glennon had taken the first small steps towards her reincarnation. She had made material space for the new person she was becoming.

 

The Easter bunny brought Audrey a lovely compilation called “Easter stories,” and we read the first one together Sunday night. It’s called “The White Lily.” In the story, an old peasant named Ivan, lives near a village with his mangy dog and neglected six year old nephew, Peter. They were dirty, and their cottage was filthy and unkept. People feared them because of their appearance and unpleasantness. Not a single flower grew in their garden, only weeds. But one day while everyone is waiting for spring to come, Ivan sees a man coming towards him on his way back from the village. For some reason, Ivan, who usually makes no eye contact, looks at the man, who smiles at him. The man is holding beautiful white, glowing lilies and says, “One of them is yours.” Ivan says he can’t pay for it, and the stranger says that all he has to do is “keep the flower clean and pure.”

Ivan carefully carries the lily home and once there, Peter and Ivan decide to put the flower in an old wine bottle, but before they touch it, they must wash their hands, and then they bring the bottle to the well to wash it also. When they put it in the window sill, “its glow lit the dim and dingy room, and as they looked at it a wonder rose in Ivan at all the filth around him. ‘This fair lily cannot live in such a place!’ he said aloud. I must clean it.” And so you can imagine, that one small step leads to another until Peter and Ivan have cleaned their whole house, themselves, their dog, and their garden. Neighbors find them unrecognizable. The lily vanishes after seven days leaving them with a transformed life. “The lily still lives, though we see it no longer,” they say in the last line.

Audrey and I talk for a long time about the story. She points out to me that if Ivan hadn’t chosen to take the flower, he never would’ve had the chance to transform his life. She seems really fixated on this point. The flower brought to life, or incarnated, a different Ivan and Peter. Its beauty gave them the impetus and Energy for transformation. And the Power was seen by their neighbors who befriended them. “It all started with the white lily,” Audrey says. “Yes,” I say, “and Ivan didn’t ask for it and was given it for free. That seems like grace right?”

After I cleaned my room that Friday night, I sat browsing online for a few ways to make it prettier. I order a linen duvet cover in lilac, nightstands with plenty of room for books, and for over the bed- an oversized black and white photograph of cascading flowers.Just living our lives is a great creative process full of decisions, small steps and incarnations. It is not the shallow transformation we enjoy watching in movies or makeover shows to a catchy soundtrack. It is often the slow, persistent steps of someone with very little energy working to the soundtrack of concentrated silence. It is not necessarily the glorious sunlit blossoms of spring, but the intensity of dark soil and buds breaking out of painful confinement. Birthing rooms are messy. There will be losses and letting go. You may have to sneak in or tiptoe around your terrified Ego to get the work started. “Nobody but a god can pass unscathed through the searching ordeal of incarnation,” writes Sayers. But the reward of the scaffolding, cranes, and labor pains is rich: new life, new creation.

Happy Easter.  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never put it out.”