Monday, May 10, 2010

It is May

I remember standing up most of the night beside the ECMO machine. They wouldn't let me place a chair there, that first night. I was so tired I could barely stand, going to sit down for a few minutes and then forcing myself back up. "If he's going to die tonight," I thought, "I need to be beside him." So I stood, for hours, just holding his hand.

I remember days later, after he had been transferred, spending the nights with my head laid on a pillow propped on his bed, my hands entwined around his arm. I couldn't sleep, I wouldn't leave, and so I would lay there through the hours of the night touching his hand, his arm, his side, always touching, interrupted only when the nurses came on rounds.

I remember making the phone call that first day. The impossible call. How do you make that call? How do you tell a mother that her beloved son has coded twice and will likely die? How, when she knew that he was going in for a simple procedure? Of the all the things in this world that I have done, that was the second hardest.

The first hardest was walking out of the hospital room after he died, knowing that I would never again see this person that I loved more than even I could fathom.  I touched his hands, his arms, his face, over and over. I wanted to imprint the memory of that touch, have it somehow rest in my skin and muscle and bone. All the others had gone, to let me have some time. But how could I leave? How could I ever leave? I couldn't, but I did. It took every bit of willpower I had in me plus some act of undesired grace to get my feet moving through that doorway.

I remember so much more. I remember a life - laughter, annoyance, worry, pain, always more laughter. And the deepest sense of belonging I've ever known. I remember the life every day, but for now I remember the loss.

It is May.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Just A Little Reminder

I went to this great Hindu movie last night: Holiday, Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, 1938. What, you didn't know it was a deeply Hindu philosophical and theological venture? But it's so clear!

The story: boy falls in love with girl, things are revealed, boy falls in love with another girl. Wait, that's not sounding so philosophical/theological, is it? Let's try again: Fun-loving, free-spirited boy - that would be Cary - falls in love with a girl who he thinks shares his values. Turns out she has more cash than God and Bill Gates put together and her main focus in life is finding ways to add to the millions. But she has a fun-loving, free-spirited, redheaded sister who looks a lot like our Kate. Kate and Cary try to convince Stuffy Sister and her father, The Pile of Money, to lighten up and see the adventure in life. Stuffy Sister and The Pile of Money try to convince Cary (they've given up on Kate) that being Rich and Important is the best of all possible lives. Emotional chaos ensues as each side tries to convince the other not to be what they are, and Cary at least tries to convince himself to be what someone else wants him to be. None of it works, of course. There are even a couple of gurus by the names of Nick and Susan Potter who try to show our spunky but misguided leads that the true nature of each must be accepted.  Finally, everyone has to recognize and accept who and what they themselves and their "adversaries" are. All becomes right with the world, Kate and Cary kiss, fade to black.

As I could have predicted if I had given it half a thought ahead of time, this movie was exactly what I needed to see.

I drove to the theater feeling forlorn. The evening was not going as planned. My child was off at a sleepover and I wanted to party with friends. I invited a bunch, but to no avail: instead of a loud and rowdy group outing, I was going alone.

Now, in general I am fine with alone. I'm an introvert, for god's sake. But this night I wanted things to be different: I wanted a big group rather than solitude, lots of laughter and chatter rather than quiet introspection. I wanted my friends to be different and put a high value on time with me, I wanted myself to be different with a charisma I've never possessed, I wanted life to be different and provide me with the entertainment I wanted rather than the lesson I needed.

This all sounds pretty petty, and it basically was, but for about a month I've been feeling this need for a mental break from being a dutiful mom and responsible homeowner and conscientious worker. I've felt depression creeping around the edges, and I've simply been tracking it to see what play it would make. I had been thinking that time away from my own thoughts would shake that feeling, and I looked forward to going out as a small break in the action.

So I walk into the movie wanting things to be different, and there in black and white I get reminded that the answer is never in changing things but in accepting them. You may be fun-loving and free-spirited or stuffy and money-hungry or lonely and unremarkable, but when you fight against this you're just fighting the illusion that any of this is ultimately real. Fun or stuffy, lonely or surrounded by friends, we are part of the One that is All, more intimately tied to everything in the universe than our breath is to our body. We can no more change that than Cary can be not charming, or Kate can turn into a soprano. I am a 40-something introvert whose main role is to be a mom rather than the lover and teacher and traveler that I dream of being, and I am as completely a part of the One as the most amazing, successful, beautiful person out there. No amount of thinking, wanting, feeling or desiring can change that. Thank you, Cary and Kate and your lovely Hindu movie, for reminding me.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Solitude and Community

I had guests staying with me this week, bookended by a party at my house on one weekend and a party at a friend's place the next. The guests are people I love and wish I could see more often, the party at my place was overflowing with people I care about and enjoy, the friend's party was elegant and fun. People-wise, though, I've been overserved. I'm feeling a desperate need for silence, for words read in print rather than spoken into air, for no smiling faces before me, for the presence of no other and as little of my own as I can manage. I need solitude so that I can breathe.

This has got me thinking about Anthony and Pachomius (what, you don't get intimations of 3rd and 4th century ascetics when you want to be alone?). Anthony ran off into the wilds of the Egyptian desert on a quest to find God. Others gathered near him, each living a life of solitude broken only when they came together for worship. A number of years later Pachomius followed the same path, but then got sidetracked in his solitary quest by a vision in which God told him to create a place where seekers of holiness could live a communal life. So now the world-weary who wanted to leave behind the "get-this-do-that-have-more" mentality of ancient Alexandria had options when they decided to throw it all aside and head out into the desert: they could choose lives of solitude or community.

It's pretty clear that I'm the solitude type. Of course, the solitude of a comfortable house with a full fridge and temperature control, plus TV, tunes, phone and Internet just waiting for me to grow weary of quiet, isn't in the same league as the solitude of a hut in the Egyptian desert. But still, I crave quiet, and it's hard for me to function as a human being if I don't get time in a room alone every day. As much as I enjoy people, I only truly relax alone. It's as though all the thoughts and emotions that usually get bottled up inside this little container called "me" finally have space to spread out. And it's a little easier to hear God's part of the ongoing daily conversation when I'm not hearing anyone else.

But there's a lot to be said for community. You have to deal with your fellow humans when you live in community, in all their crazy wonderfulness. Petty jealousies, serious encouragement, downright hostility, deepening love - it's all right there, pushing you to admit your limitations, to find your compassion, to see God in the face of the person standing in front of you.

I'm not likely to run off to the Egyptian desert anytime soon, so I'm not pushed to choose one of these as a spiritual path and stick with it. I get to go back and forth, finding what I need at the moment and blessing the universe for sending it my way. So thank you, universe, for all the community I have recently experienced - and all the delicious solitude I'm experiencing right now.

Friday, March 5, 2010

“Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.”

So said Albert Schweitzer, and I'm not necessarily inclined to disbelieve him.

I came across this quote doing some research into happiness - no, that doesn't mean I've been discovering the finer points of Jack Daniels or the latest online dating service. As part of a writing project on the Tao Te Ching, I've been doing some reading about psychological research into happiness. There are people out there analyzing data and creating tables who seem to have given up on wondering why we here in the most affluent society the planet has ever known have off the chart levels of depression and a general spiritual malaise; instead, they’ve turned their efforts to figuring out ways to help people get the hell over it. And they’ve got a good method, too: positive psychology tells us that money doesn't buy happiness, that our true wealth is in relationships with family and friends, and that for a straight line to a happier life nothing beats gratitude. It has wonderful insights to share, but when you get right down to it I still think it misses the point.

"Do tell, Cynthia, enlighten us with your wisdom: what is the point?" Good question, glad you asked. The point, I think, is to be present, to be compassionate, and to recognize that everything is so intricately and intimately interconnected that nothing falls outside of the web. Good, bad, ugly, pretty, indifferent – all of it is part of the now, and when we put happiness front and center as the goal toward which all of life should aim, we push away so much richness that doesn’t fit the program. We want to carve happiness out as a cause for rejoicing and simply suffer other experiences and emotions, but we’re chasing the wind – even when we get in the middle of it, the tiniest bit of thought will show us that happiness is not made to last indefinitely. So why should we put all our efforts into trying to grasp what is bound to slip through our fingers like quicksilver?

What if, instead of seeking happiness, we seek contentment and harmony? What if we face happiness with gratitude and sorrow with acceptance?

Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.
Tao Te Ching, Chapter 44 (Stephen Mitchell translation)

Happiness is about liking the way things are; contentment and living in harmony are about accepting things the way they are. Doesn’t mean you can’t try to change them, but the second your happiness gets all tied up in the “if only things were different” mode, then you’re running down the track to Destination Unhappy. Find the harmony right here, right now, not in some future where everything is right and tragedies never occur and you’re never bored. Find it, and be happy.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

I’ve got ashes on my forehead.

Today the season of Lent begins with the celebration of Ash Wednesday. It puts us on the fast track to the Lenten themes of repentance and sacrifice, where we are called to consider our lives, see where we have fallen short of the mark, and resolve to do better in the future. Ash Wednesday draws us out of our wants and desires by reminding us of our mortality. The minister inscribes an ashy cross on our foreheads with the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” and once again we are pulled up out of all our daily cares to a remembrance that there is a certain end to them.

Bits and pieces of us die all the time. We shed skin, lose hair and cut fingernails, recognizing when we stop to think about it that we have shuffled off a tiny bit of this mortal coil with each cell and strand gone. But at a deeper level we die in other ways, too: when you want to yell at your child and you don’t, a certain bit of selfishness dies; when you don’t want to yell at your child and you do, a certain bit of self-worth dies. Every restraint we put on our actions, every failing that takes over our thoughts, every indulgence, every renunciation – with all of these, something within us dies and something is reborn. We are phoenixes of the first order, in a continual process of death and resurrection. We arise from the ashes only because we flamed into them first.

If we allow it to do so, Lent will take us into the bleak and the cold, showing us how much of it we bring upon ourselves or force on others. It carries us to the hardened places within ourselves that we may not like, and into the sacrifices that we may only grudgingly make, and it tells us to live here for awhile, until we can soften the hard places and recognize our sacrifices as simple exchange for the good that we receive. “It’s the way we take back our lives,” the priest said today, meaning that we make a little break in the “have to have it” mode of being that our culture offers to us. Why do we sacrifice chocolate or TV or sodas or buying new clothes? Because we can; because these are not necessities for living or well-being; and because remembering that is part of the pathway to peace.

For my own Lenten sacrifice this season, I am vowing to do at least 20 minutes of yoga and meditation every day. That’s 20 minutes of not doing work, or talking to friends, or playing games with my child, or falling into bed exhausted. Yoga and meditation, even just a few minutes of them, help me find a space of peace. They bring me to the calm center from which I do my best work as a writer, a mother and a human being.

So, a bit of Buddhist meditation and Hindu yoga as the response to a Christian call to repentance? Well, it works for me. I walk in the light of many teachers, because they all teach me this one thing: that to enter peace and act with compassion from within it is the sum total of everything I need to do in this world.


If you are looking for a way to bring a yoga practice into your own busy life, you might try an online class at It’s how I’m getting my yoga groove on these days.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Cage of Fear

A couple of days ago I received a very troubling email from a woman I don’t even know. The woman, let’s call her Shelley, is a student in an online religion class that I’m teaching. The first week Shelley posted a short bio and told the class that she had left a bad marriage and that after years of struggle she was engaged to a wonderful man, let’s call him Will, who she felt was sent by God to rescue her and her children.

About a week into the class, I got an email from Shelley telling me that her assignments would be late because Will had died that morning. I wrote a short note of condolence, explaining that I too had lost a beloved partner and that I would be praying for her and her children.

The next day in my inbox I found another message from Shelley, one that bent and twisted my heart like a rag doll. She was grateful for my note, she said, because though she had loving family around, they hadn’t experienced this kind of loss and she was feeling very alone. She and her children were devastated, but she believed that her faith in God, which Will had helped to nurture, would get her through.

I was saddened for Shelley and the sense of isolation she felt, but it was the next part of her email that shook me to the core. She told me that she and Will had both been saved last year, and that in response to their new relationship to God they had forged a new relationship with each other, seeking to express with their lives what they believed with their hearts. “I know he is a forgiving God,” she wrote, but she wondered, “Do you think that what we have done since being saved was enough for God to accept Will?”

I read these words, over and over again, through a veil of tears clouding my eyesight. Even now, more than a week later, I can’t read this without having to blink back tears. I think of this poor woman, grieving the loss of the man she loves and so worried about whether or not he will spend eternity in Hell that she is willing to share her deepest concerns with me, a woman whose personality, beliefs, thoughts and even face are unknown to her. “Anything to ease my fears some,” she wrote, crying out in her pain. She couldn’t speak to her pastor, she said, because he didn’t condone Shelley and Will living together and she had no where to turn for answers.

I was floored by her words, humbled by her trust, and most of all heartsick that in the throes of a terrible sorrow, Shelley had to wade through a belief system that left her terrified for Will’s salvation. Making a deep and earnest change in his life wasn’t enough, Shelley fears, to appease a vengeful God for past misdeeds. In the midst of what is likely the most harrowing grief of her life, Shelley has to worry about whether the forgiving God of whom she speaks really is forgiving, whether the creator of the universe could have as much compassion as she herself had for a man who had both loved and hurt her.

I wanted to wrap my arms around Shelley and tell her that all the rules and regulations we’ve made up in God’s name are meaningless compared with one act of love, that if she listened closely she could hear the still, small voice inside her speak of acceptance beyond even the thought of forgiveness. I wanted to take the pain of grief away, and I wanted to take away the terror even more. But all I could do was respond to her email with as many gentle words as I could find and send a cloud of prayers in her direction.

Shelley wisely decided to drop her classes for the semester, and it is unlikely that I will ever hear from her again. But I will think about this woman caged by a theology of fear wrought by those speaking of love, and pray that somewhere in my words or the Bible or the speech of a friend or her own heart she finds the key to unlock the cage and step into a world of compassion and peace.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Mysticism Sermon Part 1

I gave part of a sermon on mysticism at my church last weekend (the minister gave the other half). Here's the first part of what I had to say:

When I was a kid I wanted to be a saint. Heroic virtue, living life for God alone, the whole shebang. I was planning on being a nun, too, which would probably make that saint thing a little easier accomplish. It’s pretty clear that I didn’t become a nun, and anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m no saint. What I have become, quite unexpectedly, is a mystic.

My family isn’t overly religious, but I seem to have popped out of the womb with thoughts of religion and spirituality running through my veins. There were Baptist and Mormon stopovers on my basically Catholic journey through youth, and by my young adulthood I was wending my way through Hinduism, Buddhism, and just about any other kind of ism I could find. And I started seeing a pattern: in all the different theologies of all these different groups, somewhere right in the center were the mystics and they were basically all saying the same thing: that our separation is just an illusion, that everything and everyone is part of a larger whole, that we may think that our beliefs and actions divide us but at a deeper level no separation from each other or from God is even possible.

I would feel a shock of “yeah, that’s it, that’s right” recognition every time I read something like this. Over the course of many years this understanding became the foundation of how I understand the world and my place in it. But belief isn’t the same as experience.

I’ve had experiences, over the years: a sudden feeling of unity with everything around, some touch of the divine that shook me profoundly and gave me new eyes to see something or someone. These experiences affected me deeply, but years might pass between them. Until about 6 months ago, I could probably count on one hand the number of experiences I’ve had that I would put in this mystical category; nowadays they’re pretty much coming a couple of times a week.

When I have these experiences, I find myself called up and pulled out of the workaday world. It’s as though I can suddenly see into the true being, the divinity and perfection of everything around me. Every tiny thing. It's overwhelming, this experience, disturbing in some ways. It can be almost painful to see the depth of beauty in every single thing. It's kind of like running around on the peak of a really high mountain: the view is breathtaking, but even so you might pass out from lack of oxygen.

I’ve discovered that having a mystical experience and driving a car don’t go well together, although having a mystical experience and crashing a car will do quite nicely. It’s hard to pay attention to traffic signs when you’re seeing the perfection in everything around you.

And when I’m seeing normally again, sometimes the absurdity of an experience can set me to giggling. A couple of weeks ago I was at a Mexican restaurant munching on chips when I was suddenly transported to a vision of God in everything I could see: every face, every wall – and yes, God in every chip. Another day, right here in this sanctuary, as I was taken over by knowledge of the perfection crowding in all around, I struggled in vain to find a place to look that would help me remain calm, and as I glanced about wildly I looked at the stains in this poor benighted carpet, and every stain was so overflowing with perfection that I felt my heart would be destroyed with its beauty. And I had to laugh at myself once the vision passed.

I know that some of you experience visions like this yourself; others may find the idea interesting and still others might see them as nothing more than delusion. Wherever you stand on the matter, I’m going to ask you to allow me to guide you in a simple imagining of this kind of experience. Please settle yourselves comfortably, perhaps close your eyes or maybe just soften your gaze, and take a few deep breaths as you bring yourself into a place of stillness.

Imagine yourself sitting here, right where you are, intent upon the service. You look at the quilt hanging behind the speaker, blues and yellows and oranges working together to form this image of fire. The depth of beauty in the blue draws your gaze more deeply into the image, and you begin to notice its varied shades and shadows. Such beauty that blue carries; you are struck by it. Then the yellow catches fire beneath your gaze, the oranges and reds almost leaping off the fabric, and again you are struck by its profound beauty.

Your gaze moves to the stones in the wall on either side of the quilt, softer in color but suddenly no less beautiful. The subtle tones, the shadows, all strike you as rich beyond compare. They are so perfect, these tones and shadows, so much the essence of perfection. You find your vision roving; you see the faces of friends and strangers, the black lines of electrical cables on the floor, dried brown leaves that have fallen from a plant and lay scattered, a magnificent tree out one window, a pencil in the pew stall in front of you. Everything, everything strikes you with the force of its beauty, its absolute perfection.

As though scales have fallen from your eyes and you can now see clearly, you have the sudden, disquieting, jarring knowledge that everything is exactly, immutably where and what and who and why it is supposed to be. Everything. Perfection all around in everything you see and don't see, everything you know and don't know, with not so much as a quark able to stray from the perfection that is, and this knowledge of perfection reverberates in your brain and streams in your veins and falls in teardrops down your face. It takes you over, this beauty, this mad power, this total disruption of the ordered world in which we think we live, and your heart breaks open with boundless gratitude for what simply is.

You sit quietly until the knowledge subsides like the flames of a dying fire and you are once again able to breathe the air of what we have chosen to call reality.

Other people have different kinds of experiences, but that’s what it’s like for me. Thank you for letting me share it with you.