Tiny Deaths, Tiny Resurrections

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“The world…is full of resurrections… Every night that folds us up in darkness is a death; and those of you that have been out early, and have seen the first of the dawn, will know it – the day rises out of the night like a being that has burst its tomb and escaped into life.”  George MacDonald, The Seaboard Parish

When I visit with my 94-year-old spiritual director, I sometimes hold my breath while she speaks because I know she has a lifetime of wisdom to offer. She’s raised seven children, was widowed in her 60’s, still lives on her own, does yoga, and is writing her own book. The last time I visited, she paused and said, “You know, the truth is—all of life is really just transition.” Even, she said, when we decide something in our house decor just doesn’t feel right anymore, and we move things around just a bit—it’s all transition.

All of life is transition. Movement. “Our lives are full of tiny deaths and tiny resurrections,” the pastor at the church we attend said a few weeks ago during Lent.

Sometimes we plan those changes, and sometimes we don’t. We plan graduations and weddings, not bereavement or job loss. Sometimes they are dramatic, and sometimes subtle. “Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different,” wrote C.S. Lewis, and sometimes change is like that. Like the way you look back at videos from just a year ago of your child, and realize she is gone. Someone wearing her first pair of heels on Easter Sunday has replaced her.

Transition can even show up in the form of anxiety or depression. When we medicate or numb ourselves, we often miss what our emotions are telling us: it’s time to change. This isn’t working anymore. Evolve to the next level. Rather than going into fight or flight, we can pause and just listen to these restless guideposts.

When my husband died, I thought people expected me to progress like someone in a Hollywood film. I would one day get a new haircut, the music soundtrack would pick up, and I’d drive off to a new life- the camera panning out as my car crossed a bridge. That kind of transition felt cheap and perverse. Thankfully, real life mirrors nature more than films. It is paradoxical, but anything but cheap. Not resuscitation, but resurrection. It is long: sticky cocoons and hiding. It is ephemeral: sudden blossoms, seemingly out of nowhere—gone in a few days. It is dark and holy. We go through Good Friday to get to Easter Sunday.

While some of life’s transitions are marked with small ceremonies or acknowledged in some way, most are not. Most happen in our dimly lit interiors, with only small outward signs of the change. Sometimes we’ve been in the tomb for so long, we need someone to call us out by name. Like Martha at Lazarus’ tomb, we may even resist the resurrection. “But Lord, … he has been there for four days.” If we’ve been in survival mode, hiding in a foxhole, the light of day is blinding.

Richard Rohr, in his book, “Falling Upward,” talks about a custom in post WW II Japan that helped Japanese soldiers returning to their communities to reenter society more smoothly. In a ritual the soldier was publicly thanked and praised for his service and then it was declared over him, “The war is now over! The community needs you to let go of what has served you and served us well up to now.” Rohr calls it “discharging your loyal soldier” in his own work with men.

All of life is transition. Living a life of tiny deaths and resurrections, in a society lacking rituals of almost any kind, I think we must start to create our own. They don’t necessarily need to be communal, but they do need to be acknowledged. When they are not, depression and anxiety will take that place, relationships and marriages will be strained, and we will go on alternating between numbing and striving: consuming and lengthy to-do lists, and seeing how we measure up to everyone else on social media.

Is there a transition that you’ve failed to acknowledge? Is it time to discharge your “loyal soldier?” Pause and listen to your relationships, your depression, your anxious thoughts at 3 am. Do the work and take the risk of moving the stone away no matter how long it’s been or how comfortable you’ve become in your foxhole. “Come out!” you might hear. “The war is now over!”

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The Truth of Higher Things

“I am not inclined to apologize for my anxieties because I have lived with them long enough to respect them…” E.B. White

You are so creative. Feisty, really, in your imaginative abilities. No matter what—you come back swinging. Into the unknown: the pause on the end of the receiver, that symptom or screech, you project an impressive scope of scenarios that surprises even me. Truly, you are talented. Brava! I salute you for that.

Your memory—unparalleled. You are always keeping track, taking notes and then you program it in, an old man peering over spectacles, surrounded by disorderly files and paperwork, punching each key so deliberately lest you forget. You are the dutiful archivist so intent on your work that you don’t even hear me enter the room. And then, in fractions of seconds, these memories come to the forefront, consciously, unconsciously—it doesn’t matter. A smell, a sound, a thought pattern…your evidence arrives unsummoned. It comes unmediated—directly into the veins bypassing esophagus, stomach, any form of proper digestion.

Your Math skills, though, are atrocious. Statistics, statistics, you say…likelihood will not matter when it’s your phone that rings. Then you’ll be swallowed up in that word: statistics that doctors offer patients with cold, dangling legs on paper-covered tables.

There’s no question that you work hard. The pathways you carve and pipes that you dig are several stories deep. There’s dirt under your fingernails, sweat on your brow, and stains on your jumpsuit. I have never seen you relaxing, or even sitting for that matter. It is your custom to pace. You never close your eyes to sleep. The night shift is your favorite actually, but daytime finds you also wide awake. You are nothing if not diligent.

You are insistent, and so damn stubborn! Things should always go your way, your route, “Remember?” You loathe neuroplasticity. You’re not a believer in science or faith. You are too tethered to the earth.

You are a loner. You’re not one to ask for help, or for company, but I take you along. “You can come with me, but please sit quietly in the back seat,” I try to tell you. I hope maybe you will quiet, that the movement will lull you to sleep like a baby, or that you’ll stick your head out the window and see the world going by as wonderous for just a moment. You’ll ride that way with the breeze in your face and in your eyes— the joy and command in a dog’s when it does the same.

But you don’t. You can’t.

You persevere. But you do it for me. “This does not serve me,” I say, but you think it does. You will not be blindsided. You are a master pattern-finder. Apophany, not epiphany. Pareidolia in the worst way.

You’re amorphous, like liquid, or a roach, or a boneless rodent, able to seep into the future and ascertain every shape that it holds with your own body. That is your willing sacrifice.

You are tiny, and bluish, and clustered, and you are always looking out for me. You work so hard, ever-vigilant, ever-present, but ever-fragile, ever-frail.

How can I despise you? Neither can I thank you. “There, there…” I can say. And I embrace you. Into my arms you collapse—for just a moment—and I see you—too sheltered and naive, in all of your small creature-ness, to know the truth of higher things. “There, there…”

 

 

We Have Words

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What separates each one of us
from all the beasts and bugs and birds?
Well they have feathers, fur and wings
but we have words,
and words,
and words.
Karla Kuskin, children’s poet

“I don’t know…I’m just not feeling like myself today,” I said. “I feel slightly out of sorts.”

“You are Moooomm…you are myyyy moooommmm,” my eight-year-old daughter said slowly to me, articulating each syllable, one evening while I stood at the stove making dinner.

“Um…OK, what are you doing?” I asked, puzzled.

“I’m Naming you,” she answered enthusiastically. In “A Wind in the Door” Naming someone helps them to be more fully the thing that they are.”

“Oh.”

Audrey’s making her way through Madeline L’engle’s lovely science fiction quintet beginning with “A Wrinkle in Time.” In the second book, “A Wind in the Door,” Naming (it is always capitalized) plays a significant role in the journey of the recurring characters. Meg, one of the main characters, asks Proginoskes, a cherubim who is there to help the children restore balance to the universe, what Namers do:

“Well, then, if I’m a Namer, what does that mean? What does a Namer do?”

The wings drew together, the eyes closed, singly, and in groups, until all were shut. Small puffs of mist-like smoke rose, swirled about him. “When I was memorizing the names of the stars, part of the purpose was to help them each to be more particularly the particular star each one was supposed to be. That’s basically a Namer’s job. Maybe you’re supposed to make earthlings feel more human.”

As a writer, I’ve always seen naming, giving words to things, thoughts, and experiences, as a crucial part of being human. As a person of faith, I’ve always thought of it as the very first job we were given in Genesis, whether you interpret it literally or figuratively: the job of naming things. Yet, the older I get and the more important words have become to me, the more hazy the line has become between the cause/effect relationship in linguistics. I usually subscribe to the philosophy that words have been chosen based on the object that they are naming, and therefore when you don’t know what a word means, you can often still guess if given multiple choice answers based on how the word sounds. Certain words sound angry, or lethargic, or joyful. But can the opposite also be true? Can things or people “become” based on their given name.

The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, a principle of linguistic relativity, suggests that yes, the structure of different languages and the words that they have, actually affect the reality that the speakers of that language experience. While there is some controversy over this theory, I believe there is some truth to it. I love, for example, reading compilations of words that have no translation in English, but exist in other languages. Is the reality in that culture different enough that they had to come up with a word for that feeling or sensation? Or has the introduction of that word changed their reality or the filter through which they see it?

What about when you’re shopping: does the name of that lipstick influence your purchase? What about the name of that car, cup of coffee, or “skinny boyfriend jeans?” Undoubtedly, we are influenced consciously and unconsciously by names. Companies spend millions of dollars on marketing and advertising based on this truth.

Or how about this? Have you ever met someone who didn’t “look like” their name? Sometimes Audrey and I imagine what other name each of us could look like. We give suggestions, to which the other often replies something like, “Oh no, you definitely don’t look like a Mary Ellen!”  Well, a recent study by the APA suggests that there is some real truth to this. When they were given random names and faces of strangers, most people are able to match up the names with success greater than chance. The study suggests that people might alter there appearances subconsciously to match the cultural ideas about their name.

“For instance, people are more likely to imagine a person named Bob to have a rounder face than a person named Tim. We believe these stereotypes can, over time, affect people’s facial appearance.”

The question that the article doesn’t address is why do people even imagine Bob having a rounder face in the first place? Is it the shape of the B’s and the roundness of the O? Or have there been a lot of round people named Bob? Which is it?

Words have creative power, and that’s part of what makes them mysterious. I think maybe this is why people have superstitions tied around the spoken word, particularly with regards to the future. Some people knock on wood. A friend’s mother used to say “Bind that in Jesus’ name,” if someone said something negative about the future. While I don’t wish to enslave myself to a theory that says every word I speak leads me irrevocably in one direction or another, I do imagine that words have other dimensions to them that we don’t see, and are therefore powerful in ways that we’re not yet aware of.

I’ll leave you with a final example that you can try applying in your life on a small scale. In the fall, I was listening to a free download of an audio book called “Get it Done: From Procrastination to Genius in 15 Minutes a Day” by an author named Sam Bennett. I admit, I was skeptical, but I listened to it now and then and tried out the exercises because I was feeling rather stuck. One of her ideas was to rename some of the larger projects on your to-do list to essentially make them more appealing.  The idea is that it’s pretty draining to see something like, “Clean giant mess” on your to-do list, so what if you phrased it differently? I rewrote the names of the five larger projects on my to-do list, and I have felt a fairly large shift. Redoing my bedroom went from “Clean messy room” to “My soft sanctuary.” Eventually, I was able to let go of the pillows my husband had slept on and bought myself all new fluffy pillows, luxurious sheets, a soft linen duvet, and even a fake sheepskin rug to step on when I get out of bed. My room really did become my soft sanctuary.  Writing a book became, “My beautiful baby.” Yes, it means the hard work of labor and the messiness of a birthing room, but thinking of writing as a process more like birthing has given me a sense of mothering and partnership rather than one of tugging or forcing.

As part of the bedroom makeover, I had printed out a small sign from a children’s book that caught my eye with the word “Onward” and put it in my bathroom resting on the molding. On my bedroom door, Audrey recently taped up a small sign that said “Hope” because one of the things she wanted to do for Lent rather than give something up (her original attempt to do this with candy failed after a day or so), was to do kind and uplifting things for people each day, and for her this often means leaving little notes around for me to find. Seeing each of these words in my personal space speaks life to me. In the Old Testament, in a chapter that became the foundation for the Jewish morning and evening prayer, Israel is commanded to write the words of God on their doorposts and gates of their house. I think a similar yearning for this kind of word power is happening today. Have you ever noticed how many words are on consumables in the last few years? Everywhere I go, I see catchy phrases on knick knacks, clothes, and art. For me, they’ve become overwhelming and commercial and often lose their meaning. But I think the abundance of this kind of decor points to the impact that just having a word displayed in or on your presence can have.

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare asked what was in a name. He suggested “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” (I remember this passage because I had to memorize the scene for my 8th grade English class. Hi, CJ! Yes, my English teacher has become a friend after all these years and reads this blog!) But I’m not sure that statement is true. Would a rose smell as sweet if it was called…a “pewdunkle?” I made that up- but really, would it? It turned out the names Capulet and Montague also meant enough to lead to the double suicide of its main characters. There is so much in a name. When you are feeling out of sorts, like I was a few weeks ago, speak the names outloud (when no one else is around preferably!) that let you “be more particularly the particular [person you’re] supposed to be.” Writer, daughter, mother, and my favorite after reading Henri Nowen’s beautiful book: Beloved.

“I Name you Echthroi. I Name you Meg.
I Name you Calvin.
I Name you Mr. Jenkins.
I Name you Proginoskes.
I fill you with Naming.
Be!
Be, butterfly and behemoth,
be galaxy and grasshopper,
star and sparrow,
you matter,
you are,
be!
Be caterpillar and comet,
Be porcupine and planet,
sea sand and solar system,
sing with us,
dance with us,
rejoice with us,
for the glory of creation,
seagulls and seraphim
angle worms and angel host,
chrysanthemum and cherubim.
(O cherubim.)
Be!
Sing for the glory
of the living and the loving
the flaming of creation
sing with us
dance with us
be with us.
Be!”
– Madeleine L’Engle, A Wind in the Door”

Acts of Hope

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Hope inspires the good to reveal itself.  Attributed to Emily Dickinson

The theme of smallness keeps presenting itself to me lately. The Tiny Habits course I wrote about here started out with just the smallest steps towards the creation of a habit along with a small, or tiny celebration. Months later, I am still doing my “tiny” habits and they’ve grown. In another book I’ve just finished called “Designing Your Life,” designers introduce the concept of prototypes suggesting that we make small prototypes of our lives before we make big decisions. Sometimes a small, but subversive choice is also an act of hope. I think maybe the more stuck you are, the smaller the act can be and the more impact and ripples it will have. You can get out of bed when it’s hard and make yourself a cup of tea. Someone once told me when I was making a to-do list as a new widow that planning is a form of hope so yes, you can make plans for something in the future or even make a to-do list for today. You can take a photograph of something beautiful but imperfect—a broken snowflake or bare tree branches. You can buy fresh flowers for your house, take a walk at your own pace, or send someone a handwritten card to brighten their day. Don’t discount their power just because they’re small acts.

I admit, by the snowstorm this past Tuesday I was feeling winter-weary. The combo of Daylight Saving Time disrupting our sleep schedule and another long day at home made the impending snow day feel a little less fun than the previous one. The snow wasn’t great for sledding and listening to the sound of the wind and the ice against my windows, I couldn’t bring myself to even venture out. But something we’d done the night before made Audrey and I smile. We have at least two resident chipmunks—one has a hole by our driveway and another has a hole right outside Audrey’s bedroom window that he often peeks out of. Knowing they were about to be blanketed with inches of snow, we took some of our birdseed to each hole and dropped it in. Now, I really don’t know if the chipmunk slept through the whole storm or had plenty of food stored away, but we imagined him finding it with surprise and it brightened our day.

As I’ve mentioned before, Audrey loves to make tiny, encouraging notes and leave them around the house for me. The picture I’ve used here is a larger sign she made one day when she was bored that now hangs in our kitchen. Making these signs and notes is one of her acts of hope. Some days, especially on the particularly overwhelming ones, I’ll go set up my daughter’s dolls so it looks like they’re having a snack or playing spa so she’ll find them when she comes home. By the time she discovers them I’ve forgotten about it, and her delight lifts my own spirits. On weekends which are sometimes lonely for me I throw out birdseed in the morning and watch the little black eyed juncos with their bright beaks and dark eyes that make them look always slightly befuddled—gather around our steps. For me, writing words is also a slightly subversive act of hope, especially when I’m too busy and it seems like a waste of time, or when I feel generally terrified to put my words out into the world.

Lent is a good season for these acts of hope because in my mind, these acts go along with the Ignatian principle I’ve also mentioned before, here and here: Agere contra- to act against. It’s not about puppies and rainbows and hearts (though it is about chipmunks!); it’s really about flexing your hope muscles against a backdrop of dull despair, boredom, loneliness, or overwhelm. An action going “against” your inclination to hide under your covers all day will be much more powerful than if it’s done on a day that you feel like singing about how great life is.

I always think of March as a fight since a Lithuanian friend told me years ago that’s what it means in her language. I think a month like March (not to mention the times that we’re living in) needs a few more of these small but subversive acts of hope. I’d love to hear some of yours.

Signs of Spring

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“Hope . . . is a gift. Like life, it is a gift from God, total, unexpected, incomprehensible, undeserved. It springs out of nothingness, completely free. But to meet it, we have to descend into nothingness. And there we meet hope most perfectly, when we are stripped of our own confidence, our own strength, when we almost no longer exist.” —THOMAS MERTON, “THE NEW MAN”

While the world tells us we must work hard for our security, that we must make ourselves bigger, and more visible, hope comes, as Thomas Merton says, as a gift. It comes when we are small and unseen because that is when we need it most.

Last week, Audrey and I read a story from her Easter compilation which I mentioned last year in my post called “Small Steps Towards Incarnation.” Like “The White Lily,” the story I paraphrased last year, this one, called “The Golden Egg” is rich with symbolism and full of hope. The story is about a poor little girl in London whose father is in debtor’s prison. He had borrowed money when her mother was sick and was all ready to pay it back when it was stolen. One of the wealthy landowners is having an egg hunt and one special golden egg will be worth a large sum of money for whoever finds it. Winifred, the little girl, goes into a church and prays that she might find the egg, but a friend of hers actually overhears the landowner saying where it will be hidden and tells her. At first, she thinks God has answered her prayer, but then she realizes it would not be honorable to find the egg since she has this inside information. Still, she does not lose hope. She goes back to the chapel where she prayed and says, “Dear Lord, I am giving it up. I cannot ask you for the golden egg now, but oh Lord, please help me somehow.” Later, when she takes her little brother to the egg hunt just for fun, the wealthy landowner sees her and asks her why she’s not hunting for eggs. In tears, she tells him the whole story, and in the end, he frees her father from prison and sends her entire family to the “New World” where he has land.

It was well-written and Audrey started to sob at the end. We talked about how the little girl didn’t lose hope despite the fact that what she thought was her hope, disappeared. “We will go on hoping,” says the girl’s mother, who never knew anything about the egg. “And I will go on hoping too,” Winifred had replied. In the end, even what she hoped to receive is different- new. She had been hoping to leave the debtor’s prison housing and go back to the green fields she remembered when she was a baby. Instead, the landowner sends her to the “New World.” He does more than fix what was broken, or return her to her old life. He gives her a completely new one.

In any kind of loss or struggle, we often have to “descend into nothingness” as Thomas Merton calls it. We cannot go back to our previous life; we are unsure of what life lies ahead. But at the end of ourselves: our resources, our knowledge, our network of friends, our talents and our plans, there it is: true hope. I think this is what Jesus means when he says those who lose their lives, will find it. Anne Lamott, in her book “Help, Thanks, Wow,” puts it this way: “There’s freedom in hitting bottom, in seeing that you won’t be able to save or rescue your daughter, her spouse, his parents, or your career, relief in admitting you’ve reached the place of great unknowing. This is where restoration can begin…”

Like Winifred, we “go on hoping,” and we act out that hope. In her case, she goes back to the same church and prays again, “please help me somehow.” As we approach Lent, it seems like a great time to surrender, to be “stripped of our confidence,” as we await Easter hope.