Green Stamps for the Soul

green-by-bikwilliams-catskidsandcrafts-blogspotdotcom-560x420

Lately the concept of redemption has been a recurring visitor, a cue that tells me I should look into this further. Thus far, I haven’t come up with anything in particular that has triggered this but it won’t let go. It’s not so unusual. But I’ve decided I will sort it out here. First, I have to acknowledge some of how such “guest words” come to  be.

Words knocking on a door of the language cathedral (sorry, language is that important to me) within the brain’s acreage might be generated by cultural/sub-cultural info that targets us randomly. Or maybe it’s a condensed version of phrases I seize upon within various books. It can be a convoluted paragraph that flashes into the mind’s magnifier before awakening. Only to leave me with vague recollections as feet hit the floor, depositing an orphan word, a tiny hint of an idea into my morning. Such has it been with “redemption”–it’s trailed me, more like a misty, never relinquished cape. Perhaps because I read and write a great deal, words–people’s entire names (I usually don’t know them), prayers or places–simply come forward and pressure me for attention and a decent response. Sometimes it’s a word I don’t quite recognize so have to look it up. Occasionally there is no such word in my dictionaries. Not too sure about this; I’m uni-lingual for the most part. And words come sung to me. I know. But it’s how it is.

But I try to give these assertive nouns (or other parts of speech) their due–as least as I can see my way through it. I’m less inclined to spend hours researching, more interested in discovering where a word has traversed my own life as well as how it can be applied in a broader sense. Shared. So this is what happened with the word of “redemption” and its other forms (inflections or conjugations of the root word). The following comes forward now.

I recall two meanings of the root word “redeem” from my early years. First off, S and H Green Stamps were happily redeemable. We got them (given as a promotional ploy) at supermarkets and gas stations. After being gathered, were saved, pasted into booklets, and turned in for a multitude of coveted, useless or helpful items from the company’s catalog. I don’t recall the items gotten–doll clothing and games, tea towels, a watch, implements of various kinds–as clearly as the experience of getting, saving and using Green Stamps. It seemed as if my mother only shopped at places that gave out the mint green stamps that were then licked and pasted into each blank page. She was a great coupon clipper and user; anything that could augment income seemed invaluable. I thought those stamps were magical: buy food or gas, get bonus stamps that could deposit a toy in my hands.

I was often talked into pasting in the strips of stamps that clogged the kitchen junk drawer. I whined about it but I can tell you I enjoyed doing this. I liked the way a blank page, sectioned into small rectangular spaces corresponding to the stamps, would soon be neatly covered. To make the gummed backs stick I used a small bottle of water (we otherwise had to lick all stamps ourselves) that had a rounded yellow sponge top. By the time a booklet was filled the pages were wavy from dampness and fat with stamps. I nearly recall the scent of damp, cheap newsprint with plastered, lined up green rectangles. I placed a finished booklet on the growing pile and when done, Mom put them in a box on top of the frig. Eventually, the stamped pages led to something handy or fun. I thought of the items as gifts. But that was how it worked: your mother or father got stamps and they were complied to be redeemed, or traded, for good stuff.

The second way I understood the words redeem/redeemable/redemption was through church attendance and the Bible. The idea was to be rescued from things I did or thought that tripped me up, could tear me down and also cause others harm.  It meant being saved from going under in a vast pool of treacherous sin–all that stuff that wasn’t good for a person, stirred up more by misguided choices–through Jesus Christ’s love for humankind and his subsequent sacrifice. I saw that it meant being set free, ultimately, from tough consequences of my human tendency to make errors– like telling a fib or sassing the parents or smacking my sister back, I guessed. I might get in trouble at home but Jesus saw through to my hopefully better intentions and, if not entirely overlooked the rotten ones, then forgave them and we basically called it good for the time being.

I wasn’t always sure what I might have done wrong. But as I sat on the cushioned pew in the high-ceilinged Methodist sanctuary with a koi-filled water feature right outside to look at, I just knew God loved me. Jesus had already paid for basic human weakness that led us astray, and even future wrongdoings if I forgot how to do the right thing. Such love was clearer to me than shimmering water of the pool with blue sky bits in it, and it went way past civilized behavior like good manners or small or big mistakes of human judgment. I could count on that.

And that made me want to do better. It was a reciprocal thing: being loved by God, then passing it on while loving God back. Even then I hoped to show my appreciation, be in sync with what I thought of as Divine Spirit, a perfect harmony that sang to me, vibrated in nature. It gave me deep satisfaction and if I could have found the right words, a sense of transcendence. And it felt better to live in accordance with “First love God deeply and fully; love your neighbor as yourself” (to paraphrase the two greatest commandments Jesus noted and insisted all learn and live). My parents insisted, as well, of course. The instructions stayed with me as the eternal light that guides me. It was a serious business, redemption, but as a child I wore it lightly, as if an ordinary thing to know and accept.

It would take unspeakable tragedies, sudden losses and repeated failures; long periods of anguish over my selfishness, badly made choices and lapses of faith before I could begin to know the greater meanings and how hard it could be to hold onto the truths it embodied. It’s unfashionable to speak of guilt or remorse but they have their places in the human grab bag of feelings–and in the guide of our conscience. By trading in selfish disregard, despair and even self-loathing–costs of a life gone awry–for mercy and compassion, I found it possible to give the latter more generously to others. When you have nothing, not even hope of life, and are given one more breath as well as the means to go on, it is easy to feel humility and thankfulness. And that becomes a redemption process.

But it is still, after all these years, hard to act in accordance with an old legacy of soul-stirring rescue and renewal. It asks a lot of people to exchange their unwise whims and ravenous appetites– as well as prejudices and a tendency toward small cruelties. That we can do worse, much worse, in the name of “right and might” we know from bloodied annals of history. But do we really act as if we know we can do far better?

Since I believe we come from God, God remains within us when on earth and we return to God in an unbroken circle, I have wondered: what shatters that primary, even mystical connection? We are each birthed into the world, and we don’t usually come with beatific smiles on our faces but crying out. But we arrive equipped with intelligence, fantastic systems of locomotion and for learning, a capacity for feeling a spectrum of emotions. We arrive with impressive free will fully installed, unlike creatures who are motivated by instinct–as witnessed by even a crawling baby’s refusal to do as caregivers desire, even demand.

We think we know so much from the very start. And we do, in some unspoken way…and then smudge it up here and there because we can. And just want to. And then is there still workable knowledge? That which can make things add up to our benefit while acting in good regard for others? Is our will expansive and benevolent or spurious and undermining? It’s our choice, after all.

The word redemption comes to me again and again because it’s powerful. And we each seek it in various ways at certain times. I worry about the fate of this place, our planet Earth. We all do. We lie very still in the breath of night and maybe go to the window and try to count the inexhaustible stars and wonder how that ravishing universe can seem so rarefied yet far from our pettiness and misery, our terrible designs with their misappropriated energies and labors. We fill our lives with distractions to quell the contagious anxiety rippling around the world. How far have we come from our best beginnings? How much have we forgotten of the mysterious congruence of a universe that goes on despite our misguided, our flagging efforts here?

How lost can a species of creatures become? Are we not primal enough? Or not open enough to wisdom greater than our limited, perhaps one might think lazy, speculations?

We are naturally inclined to be explorers. And we have good clues in maps right here. They are in our natural bodies: the pumps and one way doors, a myriad of interdependent chemicals, connectors and transmitters: the blood-rich, nerve-conducting wisdom. Our bodies mirror much outside of the flesh. We have extreme mapping in our brains, those vast reservoirs full of information and imaginative juices. We enjoy our barrier busting leaps of thought. Are we irretrievably lost? Think again, only let higher functions of mind and soul open more effective routes, bolder solutions, itineraries that can take us to answers and make things work for the many– not only the few. What is below is as above; the universe and this planet are part of an infinite, barely grasped whole. Entire unto itself, we guess– yet we are within it.

So much that we can discern about us reflects the rest in endless configurations. If you love nature, you can see that: whorls of a tree’s inner trunk and planetary paths and spreading circles a single drop of water falls into a pond. So much more. We are here to immerse ourselves in such wonders and utilize our capabilities.  To pass on love as the treasure it is. We are given all this in exchange of stewardship of a planet and the tending of our human lives so that all may flourish.

And yet here we are. These times of catastrophes, power mongering, failures to communicate. It is all so not new, but nonetheless disturbing.

How, then, can we participate in the redemption of our better natures? We must not once forget the inestimable value of human beings even as we struggle with blindness or confusion. Life can be redeemed little by little, moment by moment, one more sound act of reason upheld by care. And then another and another. There is never too much kindness; we do not run out of it, not if we keep it at the ready, put it in motion. But we are not the only vital characters coming and going as the story turns. Perhaps one challenge is to know our place and yet to find it essential and beloved.

We can count on God knowing we are floundering–we, I believe, share Spirit and Mind. We are earthly specks yet celestial beings, made for greater things though we strain to understand. Still we can take action, bring to the fore our finer and braver impulses. Let the clear heart of redemption move us to trade scattered, weakened intentions for something more sound. More sacred. Practical matters and visionary potential are not mutually exclusive. We can trade for the consequences of a quiet (create/enact the work of hope; smile often, gently) or boisterous (bring on the music, speak up for change) life but do it with the transformative intentions of love.

The time we are given and endeavors we choose, I learned, are worth infinitely more than Green Stamps stuck into piles of flimsy books. It is my responsibility to daily renew commitment to an uncertain life on earth, to make sacrifices as needed and ultimately to live with deep and abiding charity. This is perhaps the means and ends of the miracle of redemption’s power.

Make My Resolution a Double

img_1792

This new year of 2017: the phrase has a certain heft to it, a vaguely momentous ring. Is it that I like the number seven? It is soon to be the Year of the Fire Rooster according to the Chinese, and that image is fantastic and lively, rife with speculations, bordering on gaudy in my mind’s view. Everyone is taking note of a series of troublesome, even devastating events, wondering what on earth is to come next. How does one prepare for a purely speculative future?

The more usual response in January is to gird yourself with knowledge as well as embark on a serious personal makeover. But to what lasting effect? Transformation is a process that requires patience–but first, willingness. And the process can be an altogether different thing than expected.

I, for one, am resisting the tiresome spectacle of earnest change-making , of planning a noble siege upon my own life. Yes, I am being the odd woman out. Scads of folks scramble to conjure new or bigger goals; the ole inner critic nags anxiously until it’s done. Or perhaps you are not-so-subtly being encouraged to get on it and shine things up– for the betterment of those around you, too, one might gather. Either way, nothing like a team effort when it comes to change. Get out the megaphone and pom poms!

Hold on. What if you want to opt out of the New Year ritual? Say, coast along until a truly superior thought alerts you to a finer scheme? Or you feel the biting burn of discomfort and it finally behooves you to seek an alternative to the usual, even deleterious habits? Or just the annoying daily grind? Isn’t this the way we tend to address changes and if so, what’s wrong with that? Just a “take it as it comes” sort of program.

I’m  honestly of two minds: take charge or let go. They both sound good. On one hand, I’m not keen on this year being a repeat of last year. There were tough enough times I’d rather not have to revisit–it seems many I’ve heard from feel that way. So, like the others, I do imagine what might be done differently, consider how to begin a quiet repair here and there. A few inklings and options intrigue me, but I’m not overly impressed with my plans. I tend to gather odds and ends, borrow ideas, encourage inspiration any way I can and then dump it all in a grab bag to sort out as I go. I try to find likely places for a host of ideas, then test their usefulness. If they are intrinsically good ones, things click into place– more or less.  Of course some get trashed. I plan but can release those plans to a whirlpool of the fates. This is coming from a woman who used to schedule each moment hour by hour while raising five kids and tending to an often absentee husband/father. Who wasted not on second at work, driven by the need to do something more. Even occasional coffee breaks got penciled in. I admit I yet keep a daily planner but it’s primarily shaped by a few probabilities, more maybes with flexible timing. That is, other than walks and writing hours, which are firmly set and almost never altered.

I am at last old enough to grasp that life often morphs, takes switchbacks, carves new avenues without my barest judgment–or interference. Random events can have a remarkable and at times fearsome power. I would note much of what happens daily, anyway, is a result of much that’s out of my hands. I am rarely not surprised by one thing or another. Overall, despite shenanigans and hardships that may arrive, I wouldn’t edit out such randomness. I much prefer to call it life’s spontaneity. My willingness to embrace it makes a vast difference. Either I am digging my heels in, yelling “My way! My way or none!” as life tugs or yanks me along, making myself miserable–or I am hopping into a proverbial life boat or even raft, perusing the views and engaging with the experience. For the most part, the last intends to be the better choice and I am not one to dicker with good outcomes.

Much more fruitful to make peace and not war with human doing and being, if at all possible.

I sought out a lauded poet for more wisdom today. A famous poem written by the esteemed Alfred Lord Tennyson is entitled “In Memoriam.” I’ve noticed people like to offer up a few of its stanzas when bidding the previous year farewell. More popular parts of the lengthy offering go like this:

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,

   The flying cloud, the frosty light:

   The year is dying in the night;

Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

 

Ring out the old, ring in the new,

   Ring, happy bells, across the snow:

   The year is going, let him go;

Ring out the false, ring in the true.

I well appreciate this masterly poem; its entirety spans a great deal more than you may take time to finish reading. Tennyson addresses all manner of human ills and yearnings but also an abiding faith in God. It speaks to me, to a deep longing for a global plan of improvement that is built around concepts of enlivening harmony and a stable Golden Rule and basic dignity for all–those lofty principles that vast numbers of people fervently hope and work for, anguish over.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind

   For those that here we see no more;

   Ring out the feud of rich and poor,

Ring in redress to all mankind.

 

Ring out a slowly dying cause,

   And ancient forms of party strife;

   Ring in the nobler modes of life,

With sweeter manners, purer laws.

 

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,

   The faithless coldness of the times;

   Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes

But ring the fuller minstrel in.

 

Ring out false pride in place and blood,

   The civic slander and the spite;

   Ring in the love of truth and right,

Ring in the common love of good.

 

There is yet more, every bit worth admiring as entreaty or prayer as well as poem. It’s heartrending as I carefully read each line from start to finish; I blink back tears. Alfred Lord Tennyson lived 1809-1892. It would seem we have quite a way to go.

When will the love of truth and right be fully rung out to the world and answered in kind? It gets sticky considering this question though such a worthy goal. We each have our versions of what may be right and therein lies the rub. And yet more far-reaching conversations need to be regularly undertaken, and resolutions made that benefit more than the loudest or biggest or privileged.

These lines, “Ring out the false, ring in the true”, lent a good weight as I read it over a few times. That is what I honestly intend. I might add, intend once again; I am willing to keep at something I believe in. And I’m not averse to change. Whereas, as a youth and then right into middle-age I sought it out, took pleasure in its woolly wiles, the mild to mad delights and a stubborn recklessness too often, I have come to regard it as more a major constant despite my naive attempts to provoke or direct it. Change abides, period. So I surrender to life and discover it provides me with more than enough personal power. Sometimes a letting go of the so-called mighty controls of our lives can render hands free to actually do more. I find immutable control is a tacky illusion best set out to the curb.

If you read my post often, it comes as no surprise that my faith in God is an overarching theme. I don’t expect to have the ultimate say on much of anything. If I thought life to be a finite thing, I might be frantic about finishing every good intention and making a mighty mark for posterity. If I believed that humankind is in its best and final renderings on a perhaps isolated and superior planet, I might not ruminate on the “beyond-ness” of all that’s possible, nor consider how alluring a spiritual journey the majestic cosmos offers. If I believed that hope was mere rhetoric, a vehicle for stultifying the masses rather than a potent state that sets us on a course toward good even amid rampant evil–then maybe I’d just throw in the towel. Soon to be uncoupled from my small clamoring life. But I think and believe no such things. God is my trail guide and eternal witness. And so I claim and try to follow Divine Love’s tender and powerful renderings. To act as if charged with fully caring about life.

(But wait, did someone out there murmur that he or she doesn’t even see God? Look truly at one another; prepare to be moved. Locate a corner of simple earth, a spot of sky; attune to energy or vibration, a presence, even a song scored for each and every intricate thing. You will find what you look for.)

Each year we are asked to appraise our pasts and survey the future. All I can do is consider the preceding times as interesting, bumbling and often worthwhile experiences. Invisible mini-missions of faith. Aspirations of intellect and heart. A series of habits both helpful and useless. It all illuminates struggles with my own deficits and others’. Which, by the way, brings up the question of why I imagine I can change another person? I cannot easily alter who I intrinsically am without an occasional strike or two of lightning. Such events have made major inroads; one can’t just sidestep big reckonings. And always there was a cost to pay for awakening to crucial insights a bit late.

The rest of the time I can follow my personal compass toward what makes good sense. The rest is hard work, little to no crying allowed. I can practice the best of what I know, looking forward to a better result. And also knowing it may not come to pass as expected, at all. Being open to clues or portents or wisdom or interventions all help. But in the end, it is all just faith. I have faith I will awaken in the morning, continue a journey that seeks to render authentic, true and good these days and nights–this life. Until I do not. The calendar I have hung on my wall is just a loose sketch of brief possibilities.

So make my resolution a double one. First: to accept that even unsolicited change is a force to respect and heed. Second: to get done the best I can whatever needs to be done.

I’ll be writing, anyway–on stained napkin, saved concert program, torn envelope; in a notebook or on computer or as a voice memo on my phone while walking. That’s the one thing I know for certain. So far.

dscf3282

The Day After

walk-046

Any inspiring, diverting or engaging words evaporate under intense distress following my country’s election results. I can barely offer this much tonight. I feel weary, confounded. Not yet utterly discouraged or disheartened. One does not abandon hope for one’s countrymen and countrywomen. Nor one’s belief in betterment of the future despite obstacles. In my homeland. My place of living and being, creating and caring, making do and making bridges, reaching for greater good.

Today I shed tears upon awakening. I walked a very long time–it is sometimes the only and even best thing I can accomplish.

I offer these two photos…. because of the beauty and the meaning found today. This is a bed and breakfast, a Greek Revival mansion built in 1911. It captures my imagination in various ways. It’s called Portland’s White House, oddly, perhaps. I have photographed this place for years, in every season from many angles, and have used it once or twice for a post on architecture and a short story.

But today seeing the United States flag hanging so quietly between pillars stopped me on the corner as it never has before.

I believe the flag flown is a rendition of a Betsy Ross flag; she made the original American flag in 1776. I wonder what she would think of all this tonight, she and George Washington and the rest.

Another day, my WordPress friends, another day. I have (we have) much to think on. But we must go on, must we not…? Don’t we have to brave our lives’ and our country’s storms, seek clarity through arduous times and beyond? Yes. In the struggles, we still can maintain comittment to an ongoing mindfulness that melds us to higher principles–and far better actions. We are many and we have to keep at it. I will not be undone, will hold fast to far greater than what can be seen.

walk-044

Inclusive/Exclusive: Helping More Good Happen

boatmen3
The Jolly Floatboatmen, 1846, by George Caleb Bingham

I am not a natural joiner of groups, but life has often provided me with reasons to do so. It is as if my comfort zone needs frequent testing and expanding, like I am being asked to develop greater fluidity of mind and spirit. It is not usual that I’ve been coerced (though that has happened, too). If I include my family I was a joiner of musicians from the first breath. Then came sports and other activities to pursue, talents to hone (or abandon) while in competition with others, academic coursework to seek alongside more students. There is a long list of summer camps, workshops, conferences, churches and their smaller groups, treatment centers, recovery groups. Assorted special gatherings (Native American pow wows, holiday parties, weddings, funerals, etc.). Volunteer work and ever-changing jobs. Musical and theatre groups. Writing groups, book groups. As a youth in the sixties I was a joiner for purposes of social and educational change. And I briefly joined a group that had mysterious chanting and left me dizzy for a few ecstatic hours.

I have praised these groups or hidden them, added them to resumes or trotted them out in interviews for new positions. And I still search for a couple that will fit me well now.

Think about it, all the joining that has gone on in your life. If you are like me, you either do so because of shared interests and goals or it is more or less a requirement or you believe it will aid future endeavors. Surprising outcomes have likely occurred. You get to put on all sorts of hats, enjoy different interactions. Everywhere I end up there have been good reasons I might benefit from group inclusion. In theory and generally in practice I do appreciate other human beings. I pull up a chair and join, even if I am not always at ease and wonder what can be gained or shared.

But I admit this joining occurs despite a near-constant pull to solitude. The anchor of it amid life’s ceaseless shifting of demands and distractions. The satisfying yield of hours spent perusing ideas and exploring a spectrum of interests. I feel time is like breath, it sustains my life or is not good. More extroverted persons might be inclined to suggest introverts are more selfish. I have experienced the direct opposite, a release from self-centeredness and that nagging, attention-grabbing ego when engaged in solitary activities. My mind frees up, the restless ego sits in a corner, and my intellect and spirit begin to escape confines of societal limitations. There is no one to worry over, impress or surrender to. The clarifying of thought and opening of heart occur readily.

Perhaps in another life or time I might have sought religious sanctuary. A studious and pensive life, asceticism, constant communion with God–these are magnets for me (admittedly romanticized by lack of prolonged experience). I likely inherited some of this from my parents: they contrasted very public personas with private, my musician father inventing games and fixing cars, seeking knowledge and prayer; my teacher mother withdrawing to design and create with fabric and thread, write down thoughts, study Psalms, tend flowers in the yard. They both filled up with whatever drew them inward. I know the feeling.

So there is this dichotomy, one among others. I am certain this “push-pull” is shared with lots of people. Creatures of complex desires, and contradictions, we become immersed in the physical realm then yearn for greater understandings or richer spirituality. We love our earth but wonder over other galaxies or dimensions. And there arises a twinge of loneliness with the love of solitude. I, a restless seeker, yearn for like-mindedness again and wonder where are those who share my callings, passions, beliefs. And so I consider another group. The problem is, often I still feel alone. The partial solution is better grasping that each and every one of us is alone–even as we are a part of the conglomeration of Homo sapiens, sharing a planet in one of innumerable universes. I embrace this far more comfortably than I did fifty years ago. I am an ordinary soul among all others yet we each are particularly ourselves, powerfully unalike. Our eyes–those conduits to our inner being–when meeting, know this.

When I review my life, I find a seat around countless tables with mixed company: some strangers, some friends; those female and male; believers in Christianity seated with believers in other faiths or in their own self-determination. We have spoken of both sacred and secular trials and shared lessons bringing us to greater understandings. There have been individuals who have endured follies unlike mine and met with victories I have never known. And some who may as well have been telling much of my own story. And at work meetings I have at times just stopped myself from rebutting a boss’ decree or fleeing the room. Some mediations have resulted in more fractious discussion; others have brought sudden enlightenment. But first you have to  say “yes”, agree to participate. Cohesion of a group depends on willingness of others to join in and support the meeting of minds.

From each group I take what seems useful, turn it over in my thinking and being. The rest I leave on tabletop. I do not carry anxiety or fear or anger with me if I can help it. What matters is a basic respect for others, for how their own souls thrive and seek even if their ways are not mine. I have faced being the odd one out and believe compassionate detachment brings better outcomes than judgment.

A common experience of mine is having to explain how I experience my faith in God, why I came to believe what I do. It started long ago, at about age 5 in Sunday school when I said that God did not look like an aged grandfather since God is Spirit. I was met with odd looks and questions. I wasn’t sure what the reaction was about but was sure of what I meant. In my current Christian women’s group we shared our first memory of church. Most offered experiences praying with parents or their childhood church building or hymns sung together. I shared the above anecdote of about age five. I was asked once again how I had come up with that idea. I said I may have heard it at home but the truth is, I just felt it deeply. Embraced it as I always felt embraced by God.

There has not been a time when I didn’t sense God watching over me–and all of us. Despite the horrors of this world, despite a seeming lack of answers to life problems or my own soul at times feeling wrenched, forlorn at certain junctures. But neither did I feel altogether at home in this physical vehicle and in this earthly life. As a child or as a youth, I saw life in different ways than most I knew, though it took years to understand it. Where someone else perceived the appearances of things, I was drawn into the multi-layered center of them. When someone saw the withered face of a crooked old man I saw a vibrant soul if a bit tired and cramped. When someone else saw the pretty blue sky I saw God’s territory stretching beyond our imaginings. Life in all its wonders exceeds our interminable need to box things up in simple equations. To me there were and are endless connections of one thing to another such as a single leaf’s veins and veins of my body and the pathways of distant celestial bodies: to me, they are each a stunning facet of the great Design. God is in the morning and night, in sorrow and joy, in creation and meditation.

I countered the raised eyebrows of teenage friends: Who said we were the only sentient beings? Why believe we cannot read feeling, thought and needs of others when we each are given another sense of intuition? Why this separation from God, from each other, from our own selves? Can we not overlap belief and actions more freely? Is there really so little room for uniqueness while sharing common ground? I desired unity and wholeness–in microcosm or macrocosm, It was already present. We just needed to recognize it. But I felt adrift then, and can still feel that way when I forget we are taught to live with daily illusions, put on masks to get by, feign interest and understanding when raising our hands with a question makes far more sense. We are informed we need to blend in when the beauty is in our differences as well as our similarities.

The groups I have joined are often rife with an underlying anxiety about how we identify. If attending, say, Alcoholics Anonymous, one is first and last an alcoholic. If in a church group, one is a member or being schooled to be a member of that denomination. In political groups, one’s party is of paramount importance. In a private club, the involvement is dependent on qualifiers that allow you to be an exclusive member. As a counselor, I signed a code of ethics agreement but further, I had to meet expectations of the organization with little to no resistance. If a member of an order serving God, then all partake of the same vows. No matter to what we attach ourselves, we agree to a creed, a commitment, a mission. Otherwise, we are likely to be suspect or not serious in our intent–or otherwise ill-suited to the culture of the group. Rules matter; they help keep in place needed structure. Yet I am not convinced this is always the way that works best for diverse human living–at least when it is about being on a lifelong quest of the soul. We are more than the obvious, and more than our genes or resumes or talents. We are spiritual and, I believe, eternal beings living short human lives.

I recently read an article about Thomas Merton, the mystic, poet and Trappist monk. He stirred up my far less eloquent and lofty thoughts with a few sentences from his journal entry over sixty years ago:

“If you want to find satisfactory formulas you had better deal in formula. The vocation to seek God is not one of them. Nor is existence. Nor is the spirit of man.”

Merton devoted himself to seeking God and lived half his life in a monastery. He sought profound connection to others amid his solitariness and greater silence, needed nourishment of mutual understanding. He wrote over 70 volumes on social justice, spirituality and pacifism and rallied for interfaith understanding. Merton wanted to experience belonging here and now in this world as well as with God in ways mere–powerful but limited–language cannot bring access.

There are things we tend to keep to ourselves, even when we identify as part of a group. I have often kept to myself my experiences of God-moving-with-us, of near death, of intuition and angelic presences, among others. I wonder what would happen if we shared our uniqueness around a table and in the world more easily. What might someone find in our experience that could reassure or liberate or comfort? There is a risk in being wholly one’s self, in a group or even alone.

The worlds within us are reflections of who we are separately and together. We each have wisdom, stories and good questions to offer. We live and die within a far-ranging confederacy of human beings. In our particular groups we can make a difference for good or ill. There is potency in joining together, even if it includes a handful neighbors on your block. So I would hope you and I each can take a seat at a table, then be able to say without fear or disregard: “This is my truth. What is yours? And how can we share resources to make the whole better?” I’ll be coming back to that group, and it will influence my time alone, as well.

My Call for GodCalming

DSCN3458

I am in need of it despite a surfeit of greenery in the Pacific Northwest; today’s cerulean sky with clouds to redesign it; jumbles of books that should be stocks as I have invested enough in them; sounds of living that lull and inspire from dawn to dark; the arms that catch and hold me fast in affection:  GodCalming.

Yes, I seek a good GodCalming every day.

Because, you see, I am so driven to get on with it and get things done that I have few skills for doing nothing. It seems nearly a waste, the inertia that is urged upon me at times. There is a blandness to it, colorless, empty. There is a lack of intrigue that stimulates me to do something. May I please read from at least magazines as I eat my meal? Can I work on lists for tomorrow as the television blares on? And excuse me, this song on the radio is so exotic and rhythmic I have to get up and dance–I can hear you, but just a minute. I’ll just dust a bit as I move about. And yesterday’s writing session: paragraphs light up in one small region of my brain and they need cutting or correcting, maybe a whole new ending. And bills to pay, those are not yet checked off. I wanted to look up something. There is stuff to be made and art supplies and all the ideas nag at me daily.

When I was still working as a mental health and addictions counselor, I admit you could count on me. I would work overtime. I would do extra research, get every bit of my documentation done before I left, volunteer for a committee, offer to train the new intern, clean up the kitchen mess. To get ahead? Please others? No, really; I was offered management opportunities but I deeply loved to work face-to-face clients. Rather, it was already my nature to stuff all I could into a ten-to-twelve hour day. I was interested in doing things, wanted to learn. Excessive engagement? Perfectionist? Hyperactive? Maybe some of all that, who is to say for certain? Sometimes it sure backfired–the more you do, the more bosses have you do. But this is America and we get used to being driven; it is the way we work.

Bu that is a perspective, not the whole picture. One of my personal fears is not having enough time to live all I want to live. Give what I have to share. Be of enough service. Embrace the love I can.

At a writing convention once, a speaker who is a better published and much younger writer told me, “Don’t worry, there is always time to publish. Just write your heart out; you’ll publish more as you’re ready and you’ll know when that time is.”

I answered, “You’re wrong. That time is here. I feel urgency every day, both to live and to write. For one thing, there is my aggressive form of heart disease but it could be anything, any time, right? For you that feels distant, or maybe you don’t think of it. But the years come and go and there really isn’t enough time to write all that wants to be written. Or do all else that is important to me, for that matter…”

I felt breathless. Her brow furrowed but she smiled as perhaps I was uninformed or a bit out of touch with real reality. I bought her book–she writes well–and walked on. Felt misunderstood and yet undaunted.

This was a scenario oft-repeated since I was a child. People not quite understanding such fervor for living, the undercurrent of urgency. From birth I felt the desire to embrace more and push forward, this life a beautiful puzzle box that contained never-ending mysteries. Let me be fully present, let me at it… it has not left me after six decades. I may be somewhat less dramatic about my choices but our essence rarely changes entirely.

GodCalming. I sought it from the start. A way through the mazes of need and desire. A key to the balance that can elude even as the weight on the scales is constantly redistributed. How to help true symmetry come forward from the free-form abundance of life, its vibrant intensity? As with invisible ink, I have held my life up to the light and sought more answers. Or perhaps only one that would work the best for me.

Sleep is a challenge. I am too busy to sleep. I am praying for everyone I can. Then in the wide-screen of my night mind arrive scenes I have visited and there is planning for places and people yet to see. Oh, no, that last line of the poem/essay/story, all wrong, must rewrite now, get pen and paper. Some times I replay things I should not–certainly could not if I had thought better of it– have said and weighing the pros and cons of being quiet more regularly. The past looms and I have to circumnavigate it. The coming years flare like an awesome firework display that then fizzles in the face of rock-hard realities. My several children float by, younger or older, marvelous, confounding. I wonder how they managed to be stitched into my crazy patchwork life but then think, naw, don’t think about all that. On to other things–I cannot wait to witness the superluna–how again does that work? The stars are out there, singing to themselves; if I listen I might hear them. I sit up, look out the window. My nearsighted, unaided eyes absorb glimmering darkness and my ears, its stillness. I am wide awake.

I lie back down, turn over and call on GodCalming.

I have many ways to root out peace and it’s a good thing. If you’re the sort of person who experiences life at high gear, unerringly attached to accomplishing goals daily, a surplus charge of energy even if sick or wounded, have a relentless curiosity about people and most any other topic–well, then, you’ll get this. Those who can just sit, be content, rest and be happily emptied of questions and concerns may not. I wish I could take that spot for a stretch and know how that is.

I have to stop myself. Make detours from tasks and goals. Quell the brain’s and body’s activities. I must remind myself to take deeper breaths, eat more slowly and better (I sometimes forget altogether), close my eyes and put up my feet. Or maybe stare out the window at the wind in the leaves.

Having a balcony was a bonus when I began living in this spacious, light-filled apartment. It would be an enticement to relax. The trouble is, my place is right next to a rambling three-story house. Sitting on my chair with my cold brew coffee I can see into the driveway but also kitchen and one of the bedrooms if I so choose. And I have heard people singing off-key in the shower. Sometimes this happens even if I try to assiduously avoid paying attention. But I got to watch a small family that lived downstairs grow up. The couples that lived above have seemed to come and go. I got used to all their work schedules, the sound of their cars. Their arguments and enthusiasms. But after many years, in this historical, leafy neighborhood, it became another scenario. I can, I think, safely note–now that some residents have been long gone–that it somehow morphed into a drug house, at least in one part. I know because I sat on my second story, partly covered, wide balcony to read, write, eat, talk on my phone and care for my little potted garden. So I gradually saw it unfold. My momentary refuge outdoors became a post from which I could observe too much. This ought to be another story so suffice it to say, they knew I could see them. I even complained to them about the activities. They just shrugged. And all the while I was going to work to treat addicted and/or mentally ill clients and I had to come back home and see teenagers buying drugs. The police seemed otherwise engaged. The balcony was no longer a place to retreat. Nor was it safe. Eventually it resolved by itself, like an illness that got so bad it created its own intervention.

Our tomato plants are thriving and the flowers are  still lovely. I sit and relax, sometimes. GodCalming. Believe me, I needed that during those couple of years. But I still need it daily, no matter what is going on.

Perhaps it would be helpful if I explained what GodCalming is for me. If you guessed prayer has something to do with it, that is true. And reading Scripture and various meditation books. I do these things in the morning, off and on in the day and at night. I go to church as often as I can or want to and appreciate the liturgy, the music, the fellowship. I attend a Christian women’s study group once a week that is lively and thought-provoking. But it isn’t just about engaging in traditional actions of my faith.

It might include daily walks (when I can walk well again–a broken toe forbids it for now) as I am most content outdoors unless writing. I am a seeker of forest trails, enamored of the mountain ranges that surround our valley. I am at home by water, the Pacific Ocean, the abundant rivers and even stony creeks. Yes, God resides in the elements and I hear, smell, touch, view the Presence as much as I can.

God may find me as I take out pencil and paint. Or listen to refined or funky music and sing and move to shake things up. Read or make poetry. Look for clues of spiritual wisdom woven in conversations, faces, hearts. God is present when I am with our grandchildren, extended family, trusted friends. And God is often right between a stranger and myself. In giving my hands work to do for others. There are so many ways I experience God it would take a long while to note them.

But this is my truest GodCalming: the opening of my being and flooding it with universal synchronicity. A deep reassurance that the infinite design is numinous if also ineffable, still orderly and humming. The absolute sense–of body, mind, spirit–that the meaning we need is in life itself, wherein we realize the intricacate cohesion of what has been, is, ever shall be. Suffering–there is so much–matters. So, too, compassion and mercy. GodCalming infuses me with hope with an acceptance of the duality of life and a unifying force of Love. I am not truly alone here. I am not very unique. I am a reflection of multitudinous wonders, just as are you and you. In this moment there is the essence of wholeness we are each given; we are to be it, use it, share it. We are made of stars, lest we forget.

So I am to rest within the vibrancy of God. Be unafraid. Know God calls to us to do good, walk in humility. To treasure this span of time on earth we each are given. To know there is no full stop, only a continuum. We are welcome travelers, if not always here, then truly in God’s realms.

The world is so frayed. Frantic and heartsick. How fast we all go, treading water at times to just keep our heads above it all. To make sense of chaos. To construct spiritual or actual protection, to hold in our lives peace. To bring to fruition our dearest endeavors. We do have our work to do; we also have need of calm.

And to just lie down at night and find goodness still is afoot in our thinking and doing and resting, in the tender woefulness of this world. It may seem hard to believe but try to trust a little more.

This is my GodCalming: to right now experience Divinity. To be alive with heartfelt abandon. Keep building kindness and courage. Accept the gifts. Take rest now for all to come. Expect miraculous things as they do occur, every moment, somewhere. Be faithful to my own calling, as we each have a place on earth and beyond. And no matter what, know God (in all glory) Is (with us, in this and all worlds).

Breath of God, find and fill us.

 

“God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in time of trouble… ‘Be still, and know that I am God’…”

–excerpted from Psalm 46