Tag: Spirituality

4May

Do-Over

The tips of my ears burst into flame as I hustled the girls across the sun-baked parking lot and into the car. I felt sure that everyone in the store was staring at me, the foreign young mom who had just tried to do a good deed and spontaneously combusted. I couldn’t bring myself to look back, I couldn’t, and a new wave of heat billowed up my cheeks. What had I just taught my girls? Patronization? Irresponsibility? Penance, maybe? Were they learning cowardice from me in that very moment? I hoped they wouldn’t tell Dan. Really, my only coping strategy was to pray that we’d escape notice, and I wished with all the fervor of the shame-flushed that the woman we’d left on the curb would forget my face the moment we drove away.

That morning had unfolded with the sticky sweetness of late summer. The girls and I had breakfasted, hung the laundry, and headed to the grocery store to pick up some essentials. I was working out just how many ripe watermelons I could justify as essential (considering the one already taking up half our fridge, my husband would have said none; I would have said five, so I figured a compromise was somewhere in the two to three range) when I saw her. She wasn’t selling anything that day, only standing in the parking lot like an uprooted willow swaying in the heat. That she was there at all, trading in her time for the kindness or indifference of strangers, showed a heartbreaking kind of hope. It pierced me to remember how I had judged the spectacle of that hope in the past, how I had brushed away her courage and vulnerability as an annoyance. I knew this was the do-over I had prayed for.

She’s thirsty. A heart-nudge, one of those whispers of intuition that I’ve come to recognize as divine grace notes, steered my cart to a shelf of water bottles, and I tucked one among the watermelons. I felt instantly self-conscious—tampon aisle self-conscious—as if the item I’d just slipped into my cart would end up on the evening news and provoke international shock… but why? Even if I were to announce over the store’s loudspeaker that the bottle of water was meant for the woman in the parking lot, no one would care. Why was I so thoroughly discomfited?

I dawdled over checking out and putting groceries in the car, but finally it was just me with a water bottle in my hand and two little girls following me uncertainly toward the woman. She sat on a curb now, deflated, and I felt ridiculous in my sunglasses clutching the key to my air-conditioned car. Our disparity nauseated me with guilt. I felt a wild need to apologize for being born into a different life than she was, for buying watermelons while she begged, and for walking up to her now offering what she had not asked of me. Instead, I stammered out, “Here’s a bottle of water for you. I thought… with the heat…” I couldn’t meet her eyes, not even when she said a timid thank you and began to drink, and the only other word I could remember in that moment was “goodbye.”

My do-over was done, and as I hurried back to the car with flaming face, I couldn’t figure out at which aspect of it I had failed the most. According to insistent voices from my memory, I was damaging the economy by giving hard-won resources to a freeloader. All the You don’t work, you don’t eat philosophies I’ve ever heard converged to berate me for encouraging this woman’s lifestyle, and somewhere in there, the old adage about teaching a man to fish groped around for a point. From the other side of the spectrum, hyper-compassionate ideologies blasted me for not having done enough. Only a measly bottle of water to a woman who in need? My actions had made a mockery of her situation. The ostrich part of my personality mumbled from deep in the sand that I had presumed far too much, involved myself in something that wasn’t my business. My polite Southern roots chided me for my horrible attempt at conversation. I shouldn’t have done anything, I should have done more, I should have bought an umbrella back in December and cleared myself of any further obligation, I should have at least asked her name. My ears burned.

~~~

The water bottle incident happened last summer, and I still haven’t figured out where to assign my feelings about helping the down-and-out we encounter on a weekly basis. I know that poverty can be a politically charged minefield, and even though I prefer to stay out of those debates—like, continents away—I still tend to see a lot of issues in the epic scope of The Common Good. And it makes me crazy. (See above.) Of course I’m going to over-think a bottle of water until it becomes an economic and moral crisis; that’s how I’m made. It’s not how I want to be, though, subjecting the needs of my fellow humans to a gauntlet of opinions as I combust with guilt. I just want simplicity, the freedom to follow my heart-nudges with a whole mind.

That’s where people like Erika come in. Erika is the kind of soul-sister who would have snuck me out to go dancing had we known each other in our teens (maybe we’ll sneak out of the same nursing home together one day?), and she posted a story yesterday about a homeless man and a trip to Froyo World that undid about a million years of politically-correct anxiety in my chest. Loving with intention—that’s it. No expectations or grand schemes to change the world. No pressure to manage others’ lives. No political formulas or lines in the sand, and certainly no cost-benefit analysis. Just love plus intention.

Since that bungled parking lot encounter last summer, I’ve been waiting for answers, rows of watertight logic to categorize my debate so that I can make a clearly informed decision next time I see a beggar. What I wasn’t expecting was to realize that the debate no longer matters to me. It really doesn’t though. When I read that Erika and her family are buying an extra coffee each time they go to Starbucks so they can share it with someone who needs a lift, my heart jumps in recognition. This is it, the versatile beauty of love packed into cup, and maybe it’s not meant to feel comfortable, but I can finally let go of needing it to feel reasonable. Love has never followed the rules of reason anyway.

I’m not saying that it’s suddenly going to be easy for me to walk up to strangers and offer bottles of water. I still have the self-consciousness thing working against me, remember, and I’m guessing the should/shouldn’t debate will try to make itself heard again. But goodness, if any kind of intentional living is worth practicing on a regular basis, love is it. All I need now is another do-over.

6Mar

Loved Dizzy

New days don’t feel quite so new when I wake up muffled in allergies, my head packed with fiberglass wool. This blog entry probably couldn’t get any further from profound, but life right now involves gouging my eyes out on an hourly basis, and one of my aims for this year is to present myself as accurately as possible, so here you go:

Self-portrait with allergiesYou’re welcome.

In fact, I sounded like nothing so much as a hyperventilating goose last night on the phone with Rain, but that’s the thing about soul sisters—they don’t care if you sound (or look!) like a barnyard death scene or if your thoughts trip at the back of your throat and send your conversation skittering in a thousand directions. When you speak the same heart-language, conventional ones aren’t really all that essential… and this is how I see God the most clearly.

Have you heard of the 5 Love Languages theory which suggests that each person senses love primarily through one of five ways: affirming words, quality time, gifts, service, or touch? I can easily pinpoint the love-receptors of many of my friends and family, but my own falls outside the standard categories. I feel the most loved when I’m the most understood, when others can see my heart between the lines or untangle my intentions from their emotional trappings. I realize that this is a tall order for my dear ones, impossibly tall, because what I’m really asking for is intuition, and how can a kinship of heartbeats and brainwaves be engineered?

Yet impossibility has a way of coaxing miracles into the open, and the sweetest mystery of my life is that I do know love. I am heard and understood and loved dizzy by precious people all over the world, and it’s why I continue to write, to reach for the goodness that you all see in me. It’s also what stirs the embers of my relationship with the divine. I can’t attribute this meeting of souls to coincidence, and I can’t compartmentalize the life that flows between these other growing, glowing beings and myself. My heart has always recognized its kin.

So to each and every one of you who sees through the itching insulation, who hears through the honking, who understands through the far-strewn words, thank you. You are my own personal proof of light and Life, and it’s not just the spiky green pollen leaving me dizzy this morning; it’s realizing that you’ll read this and know exactly what I mean.

Soul sisters
 Selves-portrait by Rain, who always leaves me brimful

24Feb

A Personal Kind of Grace

[Photo of Vesuvius snapped on Easter morning 2010]

Everywhere, it seems, I’m reading about Lent, and I’m trying to let the words sink in, but they float just above my level of comprehension. Ashes, fasting, sin, mortality, dust to dust… Maybe it’s because I’ve never attended a church that practiced Lent (though I know that’s not a prerequisite to participation). Maybe it’s because I’m on such tenuous terms with organized Christianity. Maybe it’s because words like “sin” and “fasting” shut me down trigger-quick with oppressive memories.

My being with you this year doesn’t just refer to posting more often. The internet offers a shiny, gilt-framed backdrop for whatever image of ourselves we want to project, but it’s a hollow allure, this self-sponsored PR. If I’m only offering a mirage of who I want you to think I am, any attempts at connection will vaporize with the illusion, and I believe that connection is the reason we are on this planet together. Thus, with = authenticity.

Are you ready?

As far back as I can remember, the Easter season has symbolized a very personal kind of brutality to me. The story of Jesus’s crucifixion is horrific, no matter the religious paradigm. A man who devoted his adult life to teaching kindness, spreading hope, standing up for the marginalized, and living out compassion is tortured to death by religious leaders who feel their legalistic system threatened. The injustice is instantly recognizable, the tragedy deeply felt. And it is all my fault.

That’s what I was taught from the beginning, that the shards of glass ripping his back to shreds, the iron spikes hammered into his wrists, the agonizing hours on the cross as his lungs collapsed were all my fault.  It sent me into hysterics as a young child. Hearing the unthinkable details of Jesus’s suffering and then being told I was responsible was too much for my heart to handle intact. Jagged, uncontrollable laughter spilled through the wound, and my guilt doubled. No punishment was enough.

“Jesus died for your sins.” I swallow hard every time I hear this line at church, wondering what concept it is shaping in my daughters’ minds. I know that many people take it as a message of hope and love, but I have trouble seeing the barbarism behind the statement. Death by torture is somehow the sacrificial equivalent of my imperfection? Is it not enough to acknowledge my need for redemption without also accepting the blame for Jesus’s death? More often than not, these questions have led me down a spiral staircase of doubts from which I couldn’t see hope, not even a glint, through my anger at God for orchestrating such horror.

I can’t turn off my mind or cauterize the raw edges of my heart against pain, but I have learned to look through new eyes. A few years ago, my friend Rachelle Mee-Chapman’s article Your Kindergartner Did Not Kill Jesus, and Neither Did You helped me see the Easter story as a powerful continuation of Jesus’s life rather than a violent tit-for-tat. Gerry Beauchemin’s book Hope Beyond Hell showed me a God of love instead of torture. Other resources, music, and open-minded conversations have helped me find a third path beyond blind acceptance of religious dogma and angry rejection of the whole Christian construct. I can now love Jesus honestly, without having to shoulder or celebrate his death.

I admire those of you who make sacrifices during these forty days in order to draw closer to God, and I want you to know that I respect your ashes. They aren’t for me, though, at least not in this stage of my life. I’ve spent so long pinned in the dust by Jesus’s suffering that meditating on it now would be like returning to a prison. Perhaps I will be able to do it one day when my new perspective is strong enough to cocoon old wounds. But for now, I’m focusing on words and life instead of sin and death, meditating on the kindness Jesus taught rather than the evil he suffered. My soul was designed not for guilt but for grace—bright, sweeping, extravagant grace that becomes especially personal to me when I meet with God here on this third path and (s)he loves my split heart a little closer to wholeness.

22Feb

With

As of yesterday, I still hadn’t picked a word for the year. As much as I wanted that to mean I was too cool and self-actualized to need one, the fact is that wordless and directionless are two sides of the same coin, and anyway, I’m only slightly cooler than a mealworm. Lately, I’ve been ungluing myself from bed at the last possible minute before getting the girls ready for school, and then hygiene and breakfast and allergy meds follow (not necessarily in that order), and by the time I sit down to take soul-inventory for the day, it’s already 9:00 without a single stray epiphany to show for it.

I know that life is a dynamic, untamable tempestress and that if I ever try claiming to have her figured out, I can expect a bitch slap upside the head.  But really. “Huh” does not count as a mantra.

Here is what I’m talking about:
The delightfully dreadlocked Mandy Steward chose “vulnerable” for the year.
Sarah Bessey, whose writing is fire and water all at once, went with “fearless.”
My precious warrioress Rain honed in on “unafraid.”
Erika Morrison, who is cooler than a whole stage of mealworms with their own backup dancers, picked “celebrate.”
Alise chose “do,” and Jeff chose “start,” and all around me, I see bravery, the determination to live life to its fullest. I see how starting the year with a focus puts each day into hopeful perspective, how it catapults daily routines into another stratosphere of worth.

To be honest, I feel like I’ve gypped myself by not staking the same kind of claim on 2012 from the beginning. However, my main goal when the calendar turned was riding out a dust storm that threatened to keep me an ocean away from my husband and girls. January was turmoil and surprise and blinding uncertainty, and the only thing I found myself whispering on repeat was “God with us, God with us.” The concept of Emmanuel, carried over from the Christmas crèche, carried me back home.

Since returning, I’ve taken the gift of joblessness as a wide-flung opportunity to be present for the people in my life—saying yes to invitations, penciling in long afternoons for relationships, participating in this online community, being with instead of just around. And I finally saw it this morning, the thread strung like a lifeline between January’s upheaval and February’s calendar blocks:

With

God with me, the warmth of divine-to-earth whispers in my ear even when religion leaves me cold.

I with you, here, fully engaged in connecting through my words, offering my authentic heart.

I with you, our conversations growing well worn and becoming ever more Real as I care them threadbare.

Partnering with the causes that rip compassion-wounds in my defenses.

Communicating with the people I’m inclined to write off.

Walking with my loved ones, old and new (even if this means [thinking really hard about] answering emails in a timely fashion…).

Making eye contact with my own life instead of ducking away to hide when it gets overwhelming.

Waking up with us—all of us, you and me and Emmanuel whispers—on my mind and my path for the day stretching double-wide.

I might be late to the party, but man, it’s good to be here.

13Feb

Like a Child

Last September, Sarah Bessey shared an incredibly touching post about the prayer of a two-year-old girl when she didn’t know how to express hurt over her parents’ failing marriage. The little girl simply prayed through her tears, “Jesus. Mommy. Daddy.” and trusted that he would understand.

Perhaps that post touched such a deep chord with me because I don’t know how to put words to prayers either. In the religious culture of my childhood, prayer was a minefield requiring spiritually PC language and doctrinal gymnastics while we conjured up select interpretations of scripture like robed genies to our aid. Talking to God required as much ceremony and flattery as approaching a volatile dictator; it was more strategic groveling than anything, and it wounded me all the more for being labeled as love.

I knew the right words, but they came to represent a complicated and soul-mangling kind of subservience to me. Even now, if someone puts me on the spot to pray aloud, I can feel the old scripts grind into my heart with muddy boot heels. (Hopefully, no one notices me tripping flat over the initial “Dear God…”) For all my belief in a rule-breaking, boundlessly loving God and in miracle answers, I still can’t bring myself to frame requests with words. I won’t go back to groveling for scraps of divine favor.

So I feel prayer, and I soak it in through my headphones, and I breathe it on the open air, and I feel our connection the way I sense light through my eyelids. However, none of it quite replaces the intentionality of conversation… and so I turn to this.

Jesus. Dan.

Jesus. Natalie.

Jesus. Sophie.

Jesus. The friend being torn slowly apart by divorce proceedings.

Jesus. The friend heartbroken by infertility.

Jesus. The loved ones facing major life decisions.

Jesus. Our own major life decisions.

Jesus. Our finances.

Jesus. Our marriage.

Jesus. This complicated soul-life I wrestle and grow and wake with.

And I trust him to understand.

24Dec

Of Stupidity and Love

This week has taught us two things above all:

  1. Don’t be stupid.
  2. God’s got our backs.

Perhaps I should back up. The expat life comes with a unique set of challenges, and probably the biggest of these is getting all the right permissions to live and work legally. It’s never easy navigating Italian bureaucracy, but the change in Dan’s work situation this year put us in a particularly complicated spot. To make a long story short, we were given until this past Tuesday to leave the country… preferably after figuring out a legal way to return.

The last few weeks have been insane in a way I couldn’t really write about here. At any given time, we were trying to coordinate with at least three government offices, each of which had limited and arbitrary opening hours, and none of which would cooperate with the others. It seemed impossible that we would have everything we needed—documents, official approvals, and money for plane tickets—by this week, and we had to learn to live in the tension between frustration and hope.

But last weekend, everything merged into the fast lane of divine intervention. Dan got some last-minute work that paid for our tickets, the government offices moved at a speed we’ve never seen before to get everything approved and stamped, and at 9:00 Tuesday morning, we picked up the final document we needed to get our new visas. By 11:00, we were packed and on the road over the Alps to Munich.

Reading lessons in the back seat

It might not make much sense to drive a full nine-hour day (much less a full nine-hour day through snow storms) just before a transatlantic flight, but we’d found an amazing deal on tickets departing from Munich, and we had friends there willing to let us crash for the night. And as it turns out, there was a third reason to fly out of Germany that someone bigger than us knew all along.

We discovered it at 6:00 the next morning while checking in at the airport. “I’m sorry,” the check-in attendant said kindly, “but I can’t print your boarding passes. The little girl’s passport is expired.” Dan and I answered simultaneously—“No it isn’t!” After all, we had both double-checked the passports, so there had to be a mistake. The attendant was right though; Natalie’s was expired by a few months. Our hearts sank into our shoes as the woman recommended we find an embassy. Even if the embassy hadn’t already closed for the holidays, an expedited passport would still take a few weeks, and we couldn’t even legally return to our home in Italy for Christmas. It seemed like all of the miniature miracles of the weekend had been for nothing.

But another attendant overheard what was happening and went to make a phone call. When she returned, she told us, “There is one condition under which you can leave. If you are trying to return to your home country and have never been residents in Germany, we are not allowed to keep you here.” I barely restrained myself from jumping up and down  in the wave of pure, giddy relief. If we had tried to fly out of Italy, we wouldn’t have been allowed onto the airplane, but since we just happened to be in Germany… wow. Just wow.

Waiting on our flight

The expired passport did cause extra hassles during boarding and again for our transfer flight (and this is where I reiterate the “Don’t be stupid!” moral of this story), but in the end, we were allowed to return to the States, our carry-ons overflowing with a sense of the miraculous. We were then able to pull off the surprise of the year knocking on my in-laws door. Getting this chance to be with family for the holidays is what we wanted above all, and I’m under no illusions that we pulled this off ourselves. Our being here is a gift—a crazy, intense, gorgeous gift that leaves no doubts as to the giver’s love.

Natalie loves every minute at the beach

Happy holidays from Florida!

30Jul

Breaking the Rules

I’m sitting halfway out of an open window, bare feet double-dipped in sunlight, espresso and milk on the rocks in my favorite mug. It’s just what I needed after a week of sulking weather and self-doubt. It’s also the first time in awhile I’ve been able to sit and corral all the little thought-bytes sifting around my soul, and seeing the bigger picture of what I’ve been processing piecemeal lately is its own kind of sunlight therapy.

Here’s the thing—

If traditional, commonly-accepted Christian interpretations of the Bible are true, then I am a better parent than God is (even when I’m grumpy).
The “good news” is just one facet of the worst news imaginable.
Free will is a test designed to fail.
There is no such thing as unconditional love.
The end justifies pretty much any means.
Jesus was a terrible evangelist.
It really is all up to me.

I have done enough mucking around in my soul over the last decade to say this with absolute certainty: If traditional, commonly-accepted Christian interpretations of the Bible are true, then I want nothing to do with God.

Nothing.

My philosophy professor in college taught that we are only motivated by a desire for truth, and I want to argue with him as strongly now as I did at my desk nine years ago. The idea that a God whose master plan involves eternal torture for most of humankind might really be truth is the thought that sends my spirituality into hiding the most quickly. If it’s true, then I’m damned anyway because I cannot—and would not, even if I could—love the orchestrator of infinite cruelty.

The spin on all of this is that I have felt God. I’ve looked miracles full in the face. I know the thrill of a nudged heart, the mystery of peace replacing panic, and the deep-rooted sparkle of love breaking rules, and the rule it’s breaking down right now is that I have to choose between my own conscience and truth… or at least other people’s version of truth.

Here in the sunlight, this statement doesn’t seem to carry the weight of all its sleepless nights and shadowed days, but I’ll say it anyway: I believe in God. This belief isn’t a thing I can dismiss any more than I can will away cloudy Julys or untannable skin or a questioning mind, but I’ve come to recognize it requires sacrifice on my part. I have to give up the notion that any of the seven translations of Bibles on our bookshelf is a perfect, untouched directive straight from divine lips. I have to let go of the mental hierarchy we make of religious leaders/teachers/authors with us laypersons on the rung marked “Irrelevant.” I have to say goodbye to my reputation as a good Christian and welcome labels like “heretic,” “apostate,” and “disturber of the peace.”

In essence, I have to give up the three things much of Christianity is built on—Bible worship, traditional teachings, and the appearance of holiness. I would never have imagined sacrifice for the sake of my beliefs looking like this. (Avoiding miniskirts and cigarettes? Well duh. Martyrdom? Sure. But voluntarily free-falling off the edge of orthodoxy? Uh… no.) However, if my path lies somewhere outside of traditional, commonly-accepted Christian interpretations of the Bible,
and if Jesus was a glimpse of the true God,
and if the heart-nudges I’ve felt are merely previews,
and if unconditional love matters, wins, is
then I’m willing to give up everything I’ve ever stood for—and then some—to find out where this belief will take me.

If I’m not mistaken, this is what they call faith.

 

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