Beginning Again

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My friend Janel and I met for our “writing group” this morning.

This sacred, monthly ritual consists of taking up a table at Camber for at least two hours, talking about everything but writing, and then making rushed, earnest promises to one another in the last five minutes about all the writing we are going to do before we’re together again.

We usually begin by talking about favorite pens and journals. In case you’re pining for the details, my favorite pen is the PaperMate InkJoy gel, and hers is the Office Max version of the flair pen. And we’re both using (cheap) bullet journals in a much sloppier way than the Instagram feeds we follow. And she turned me onto using big post-its for my to-do list in the front of my journal. After 44 years of life, it’s satisfying to figure some of these things out.

I promised to start blogging again, and here I am! Yet another example of how writing group is actually working even though we are (blessedly) not hardcore about it. The two of us are hardcore about plenty of things—being present to our children, working hard at our jobs, trying to deepen our marriages and eat less french fries. It’s nice to drop into this gracious space with one another.

Writing here again underlines a core conviction of mine: We are meant to be creators, not just consumers! I’ve had so many clients in my office lately who are drowning in notifications, buried under banal input, trying to hear themselves again. We all need some kind of place to make something.

I’ve adopted Emily’s instructions to herself. When she feels anxious, lonely, or out-of-sorts, she reminds herself of three “M’s”: Make, Move, Meditate. These have been really helpful to me lately. The “make” might be starting dinner prep or pinching dead leaves off a houseplant. The “move” might be vacuuming or one minute of stretching. The “meditate” might be one 9-second breath, reminding me to be in my body. They all serve to keep me from energetically “scrolling,” mindlessly ingesting what other people are saying or passively watching what’s going on around me. More than ever, the world needs us to be present to ourselves so we can be present to the world.

I am prone to an all-or-nothing orientation when it comes to writing, moving my body, or praying and meditating. If I can’t completely knock it out of the park, I just don’t start. This little blog entry today lets me begin again, lets me treat this day and this moment like the practice it is.

Favorite Reads of 2018

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I read 104 books in 2018.

Some people have superpowers of running marathons, parenting more than two children, or playing the guitar. Other people have superpowers of keeping meticulous track of their money, knitting, or remembering everyone’s name and birthday. My superpower is reading.

I like to read, obviously, and I’m a fast reader, but it’s also been a very conscious choice the last few years. I used to do most of my reading on vacation or fantasize about taking a sick day so I could stay in bed and tackle a stack of library books. Then I decided that was silly. I made a decision to stop treating reading as a luxury and to treat it instead like a necessity. Just like I need food, water, sleep, touch, friendship, safety, shelter, I’ve figured out that I also need the quiet, solace, and challenge that reading gives me.

I got excited about probably 40% of the books I read this year, but I’m glad I read all of them, for one reason or another. What follows are some faves, and then a few tips and tricks for developing a reading life.

Top Three
Three books I couldn’t put down and won’t stop thinking about for a long time.

  1. Marrow, by Elizabeth Lesser. Spiritual teacher Elizabeth Lesser tells the story of giving bone marrow to her sister, and how the two of them worked to create a relationally hospitable environment for her sister’s healing. Since reading this, I’m convicted to work for all my relationships to be a little bit better.

  2. The Best We Could Do, by Thi Bui. In a gorgeously illustrated graphic novel, Bui tells the story of her family’s immigration from Vietnam and the particular kind of love and loneliness that comes from growing up in an immigrant family.

  3. Rising out of Hatred, by Eli Saslow. The awakening of a former white nationalist, Derek Black, and the amazing friendships that spurred it. There are a million reasons to read this book, including better understanding the rise of Trump and the normalization of white supremacy. But what I loved most was the powerful example of relationships to change lives. A total page turner.

Getting Educated
Some of these were hard to read, some were fiction, some non-fiction. They all opened me up to wider worlds, which was a big reading goal of mine this year. I feel very strongly that there is NO REASON why those of us with privilege should stay uninformed about the realities the rest of the country and world face. It’s not hard to find stories. It’s not hard to find information. It’s one of the ways we can make the world a more just place.

  1. Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown, by Lauren Hilgers. Literary journalism about pro democracy activists in China and the immigration of two of them to Queens.

  2. There There by Tommy Orange, a novel about urban Indians in Oakland.

  3. “You can Tell by Looking” and 20 other Myths about LGBT Life and People by Michael Bronski, Ann Pellegrini, and Michael Amico.

  4. No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free in America , by Darnell Moore.

  5. Your Black Friend, by Ben Passmore. A comic book about racism.

  6. Kindred, by Octavia Butler. A time traveling first-person narrative about slavery.

  7. Undocumented, by John Moore. Intimate and sweeping photos of immigrants waiting to cross or trying to cross the U.S. southern border.

Good Stories
I see when I look over my list for the year that I tend toward non-fiction. Thank goodness for this fiction in the mix, though there’s just as much learning in it.

  1. The Overstory, by Richard Powers. Paralleled my growing fascination with trees and my growing sadness about climate change. This book was completely masterful.

  2. Clock Dance, by Anne Tyler. This isn’t her first rodeo, and it shows. I love stories of unlikely friendships.

  3. The Course of Love by Alain de Botton. Fiction, but the most realistic portrayal of a marriage I’ve ever read.

  4. Lawn Boy, by Jonathan Evison.

  5. An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones.

  6. The NInth Hour, by Alice McDermott.

Yay for Literary Journalism
Some of the books above fall into this category, too, but I’m really loving this form of nonfiction that uses some of the strategies and techniques usually associated with fiction.

  1. Life Reimagined: The Science, Art and Opportunity of Midlife. By Barbara Bradley Hagerty.

  2. Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression—and the Unexpected Solutions, by Johann Hari.

  3. This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm, by Ted Genoways.

Tips for Developing a Reading Life

There are so many ways to grow in our humanity. Reading isn’t the only one. But if you want to make it more a part of your life, here are some thoughts:

  1. Find a few referral sources you like and consult them often. I get my referrals from my local bookstore and their newsletter (three cheers for Village Books!), from the New York Times, and from NPR’s Maureen Corrigan. And from friends, of course!

  2. Get cozy with your library. Almost every single thing I read this year came from the library, though I do allow myself a few purchases. I have the library app on my phone and reserve several books a week. When I stop by the library and head to the hold shelves, it’s like getting a present. When I go in, I also spend a few minutes in the New Arrivals section and have picked up some of my favorites that way.

  3. Figure out your reading style. Are you an audiobooks person? Do you like to read from actual paper copy or are you the ebook type? I’ve figured out that I like the real thing in my hands and that I space out with most audiobooks.

  4. Set a realistic goal. If you haven’t been in the habit of reading, set a modest goal for yourself. Maybe you want to read 6 books in 2018. That’s a lot if you’re starting from zero!

  5. Nancy Pearl’s 50 page rule is the bomb. The famous librarian and book reviewer says that, if she’s not intrigued by page 50, she puts the book down and starts another. The world is too full of good books to waste time!

  6. …but give your attention span a challenge. If you haven’t been in the habit of reading, maybe don’t adopt the 50 page rule just yet. It might be boring at first since lots of us are used to scrolling instead of reading. Keep at it and enjoy the feeling of having to stick with something.

  7. Find an outlet. I take a picture of every book I read and post it on my private instagram feed. This helps me keep track of what I’ve read, lets me write a few sentences about the book, and gives me a little reward for finishing it.

Happy New Year! I hope your 2019 is full of learning, connection, and joy.

Advent 24 and 25: Let Evening Come

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I am cheating and smooshing two posts into one. I’ve been running on writing fumes and have no idea how people write whole books. The years I’ve done this Advent writing, I always notice the same few things—how writing every day is far preferable to waiting for a profundity to arrive on my doorstep, how writing never makes me feel worse about anything, and how much better I become at noticing the questions and miracles inherent in any boring day.

I also notice how connected I feel to my readers, though I don’t know who most of you are. Awhile ago, I disabled comments so my readers can be freed up to simply receive. And also so I don’t maniacally check all day long to see who commented or infer that a low number of comments means the post was dumb or trite or pompous or all the other things I am prone to tell myself. Though pulling the comment field makes this blog more one-way, I’ve been surprised that when I sit down to write, I still feel you.

Thank you for reading and thank you for keeping me company on this Advent journey of waiting and watching. Thank you for giving me more reason to notice what’s going on in me and around me.

The poem I’m including tonight, by favorite poet Jane Kenyon, is probably more end-of-year than Christmas Eve, but I’ve been thinking of it all day long. At the end of every year and at the end of each day when darkness descends, I think our souls remember that everything ends. Even in the joy of birth, I remember looking at my babies and thinking, “This won’t last forever.” If Mary didn’t know the same in Jesus’ early years, she certainly knew it as she watched him tortured and assassinated for his message of love.

So one of the things I repeat to myself during times of change, doubt, uncertainty, or sorrow, is “Let evening come.” That beautiful phrase is from this poem. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, may you and your loved ones be shepherded and provided for on your journey in this next year.

Let Evening Come

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

Advent 23: For all the Mothers in the World

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Though I try to remind myself how rational I am, what admirably low expectations I have for the holidays, I always get hit upside the head. Today, I huffed and puffed because no one else in my family seemed to be preparing as ardently as I was (“This tiramisu is not going to make itself!”), and underneath it all, there was nostalgia. Nostalgia for when my kids weren’t so picky with their Christmas lists, nostalgia for some simpler time that actually never existed.

The parenting Mt. Everest continues around here, and I considered posting a poem I wrote this week about my almost sixteen year-old son. Then I remembered what the poet Ellen Bass said. If she writes about her adult children, she shows it to them first. And I feel sure Wyatt would say, “No way.”

Yancey rallied after dinner and suggested we drive around and look at Christmas lights, which seemed to cheer us all up. We passed around a phone and took turns choosing Christmas songs. Loretta and I got really excited about this turn of events, and Yancey and Wyatt, by this time in December, have completely had their fill of yule tunes. When Wyatt’s turn came, he picked Springsteen’s My Hometown, and we all sang along. I rested my head against the back of the seat, glad it was dark so Wyatt couldn’t see my tears. I love that he picked that song, and I think he knew that.

These last days of December, my thoughts always turn to Mary and to all the mothers and mothering energy in the world. Love that says “Yes” despite the heartache of it all. The story of Christmas, at its core, is a story about a mother having a baby and the rebirth available to all of us when we don’t try to protect ourselves. When we don’t do the safe thing.

My prayer for myself and everyone who loves someone else fiercely, whether it’s your child or not, is that we keep putting ourselves out there. We keep staying awake until we hear the door open, we keep risking disappointment or getting it wrong, we keep going all in even though an end or a change is inevitable.

Dorianne Laux has some beautiful poems about mothering, and I find myself craving wisdom from elders at this time in my life. I’ll leave you with the closing lines from her poem Planning the Future about her sixteen year-old daughter:

…And I can see clearly
the day she’ll walk away, keys on a ring,
a suitcase banging her legs.
The the real work of motherhood will begin,
the job of waking into each morning, trusting.

P.S. A photo from eight years ago. From the left, Wyatt, my niece Hannah Mae, and Loretta. Sigh.

Advent 22: Into the Night

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When I told Loretta today was the shortest day of the year, her eyes got wide. She and her friend took a walk down to the bridge at 3:30 and I told her she had 45 minutes to get back before it got dark.

The darkness is real. I read the news this morning. Closer to home, a guest at the Lighthouse Mission died in his sleep two nights ago. And there are hundreds of people just in this town who will spend Christmas Eve in the hospital, or home, but lonely. And within all of us, we have our own shadows to contend with, an inner restlessness that’s painfully loud sometimes.

This afternoon, the clouds blew away, the rain held off, and now the full moon lights up this longest of nights. The default metaphor is that darkness means we’re lost, or evil, or without hope. Thankfully, there’s a great tradition of it meaning something else—sustenance, quiet, rest, solace, and totally necessary for experiencing light.

So on this 2018 Winter Solstice, I’ll leave you with a few lines from David Whyte’s poem The Journey:

Sometimes with
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out

someone has written
something new
in the ashes of your life.

You are not leaving,
even as the light
fades quickly now,
you are arriving.

Advent 21: Feeling God

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We watched Springsteen on Broadway last night, and I’ve been listening to the soundtrack all day, especially “Tougher than the Rest, ” a duet with his wife Patti.

There are some powerful dichotomies in his music. The dichotomy of earthiness and the Divine. The archetype of both leaving home and coming back to it. The startling reality that, to ascend to the heights, we have to descend to the depths. As the poet Billy Collins says, “The message of poetry is, ‘Life is beautiful, and we’re going to die.’” And the poet Wallace Stevens: “No ideas, but in things.” Bruce gets this all right. You can reach out and touch the details, the things, in his songs, and the details are all the more beautiful because they are temporal.

I’ve been in a lovely Bruce-induced coma all day long, thankful for my passage through this earth where music is made and listened to, where people can tell their stories with such love and passion. I’m too tired to write a poem, but this little entry is my ode. An ode to the storytellers and musicians of the world, to my place among them, and to being inspired. To feeling God. If that’s not possible, I’m not interested.

Advent 20: Make Something

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More specifically, make these Chocolate Crinkle Cookies. I stood in the kitchen and ate one this morning, involuntarily closing my eyes. I am a Cookie Snob (my mom’s cookies have spoiled me forever) so my bar is high. These jumped way over that bar. Inside, they are like the best brownies you’ve ever eaten. Outside, their thin crackly crust makes you never want to settle for a brownie again.

I don’t post many recipes anymore for a few reasons. When my kids were younger, recording my kitchen escapades was a perfect outlet for my extroverted self. Now, with a busy consulting practice and kids with full lives of their own, I find myself returning to a rotation of standards: rice and beans, tortilla soup, pho, taco bar or burrito bowls in many variations, pasta, salad bar. Lots of sheet pan and instant pot dinners. They are usually all delicious, but I’m pretty convinced cyberspace doesn’t need me posting me about them. I’ve been blogging here for 10 years, and a lot has changed since then. Food blogging gave me an excuse to talk about life, and it turns out I’m a lot more into that.

But getting into the kitchen is always fortifying for me. On Sundays, I wash and prep vegetables, hard boil eggs, make soup, clean the fridge. There are a million ways to put something into the world, and cooking is mine.

Increasingly, many of us find we are becoming consumers instead of creators. This is stultifying. We are made to create things. We are made to contribute to the tumultuous cycle of life and death, to add our little bit to the mix. When we keep ingesting things without a proportionate output, things get clogged. My metaphor for this has long been a juicer. When I’m stuffing produce down the chute of my juicer, I have to open the spout! It has to have somewhere to go! If not, all of that gorgeous juice gets clogged and spills out on the counter. For the last few years, my mantra has been “Out of juicer and into the cup.” Certainly cooking isn’t the only way to do that, but it’s a damn practical and delicious way.

Okay. You are probably ready to make these cookies. They are from Cooks Illustrated. Put some music on and have fun.

Chocolate Crinkle Cookies
Makes 2 dozen.

1 cup flour
1/2 c. unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 c. packed brown sugar
3 large eggs
4 tsp. instant espresso powder (optional)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
4 oz. unsweetened chocolate, chopped
4 Tb. butter
1/2 c. granulated sugar
1/2 c. powdered sugar.

Heat oven to 325. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Whisk flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in a bowl.

Whisk brown sugar, eggs, espresso powder (if using), and vanilla together in large bowl. Combine chocolate and butter in a bowl and microwave at low power, stirring occasionally, until melted, 2-3 minutes.

Whisk chocolate mixture into egg mixture until combined. Fold in flour mixture until no dry streaks remain. Let dough sit at room temperature for 10 minutes.

Place granulated and powdered sugars in separate shallow dishes. Working with 2 Tb. dough at a time, roll into balls. Drop balls directly into granulated sugar and roll to coat. Batter will very sticky and annoying. Don’t worry. This is right. Transfer dough balls to powdered sugar and roll to coat evenly. Evenly space dough balls on prepared sheet.

Bake cookies, one sheet at a time, until puffed and cracked and edges have begun to set but centers are still soft (cookies will look raw between cracks and seem underdone), about 12 minutes, rotating sheet halfway through baking. Let cool completely on sheet before serving or storing.

Advent 19: Your Radiant Core

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Another description of an animal in winter from Gayle Boss, this time a porcupine:

Inside [a hollow oak tree], out of the wind but eschewing the comfort of a nest, he assumes the pose of his winter rest. Sitting up, he tucks the unfurred patch of his rump beneath him so it won’t leak heat. He folds his forelimbs close to his thinly furred chest and turns in his broad back limbs to shield his thinly furred belly. Lone ascetic in the dim heart of the tree, he closes his eyes and hugs himself, warmed by his own radiant core.

That’s what seasons of reflection and hibernation offer us—the opportunity to be warmed by our radiant core.

One of the lessons from the Enneagram, the psycho-spiritual tool that’s helped shape me and my worldview, is that our essence cannot be lost or harmed. Underneath our personalities, beyond our family histories, deeper than our vocational self, deeper than our roles of mother, brother, boss, daugher, our essence breathes. Our true self sustains us. It may remain hidden for decades. For some people, it remains hidden right up until death. The invitation to those of still alive is to uncover it before it’s too late. To risk the cold of winter, the terror of our negative emotions, to risk the possibility that maybe, underneath it all, we’re empty. When we open ourselves to that emptiness, we might experience, as Denise Levertov says, that “Emptiness is a cup/and holds and ocean.”

P.S. Jenn’s cat Eddie, who makes me want to have a cat. Which is crazy.

Advent 18: Be Astonished

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All day, I didn’t know what I was going to write here.

A few hours ago, we settled into the bleachers for Wyatt’s basketball game. A couple rows behind us, the two team managers sat manning the video camera. I always love team managers. Afficionados of the sport but maybe not hardwired to play it, they usually model the kind of behind-the-scenes servant leadership that puts most of us to shame.

As the varsity players came out of the locker room, one of the managers said, with unbridled enthusiasm, “There’s Stephen! Dude—Stephen’s playing varsity!” They they both let out a raucous whoop and high-fived one another. Stephen, dedicated C team and JV player for the last two seasons, had been asked to suit up since varsity had two injured players. He didn’t see any minutes on the court, but the two managers had it right—total joy.

I smiled the rest of the night and thought of Mary’s Oliver’s instructions for life:

Pay attention
Be astonished
Tell about it

Sometimes life leaves us no choice but to fall in love with it.

Advent 17: Sacred Trimester

Favorite Sunday of the year yesterday with all the little shepherds and angels and adorable pageant mistakes. This is the first year I didn’t have a child in it. Sigh.

The whole tableau is so human, and reminds me of another Christmas poem of mine from the archives. It’s about a pregnant Mary going to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who’s also pregnant. Both are visited by angels who say, “Do not be afraid.” Both will have baby boys who show others the Way of Love.

Sacred Trimester

Mary set out to visit Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea. When Mary entered her home, Elizabeth ran to greet her. (Luke 1)

They make tea,
clear out the spare room,
take afternoon naps.

Eat popcorn,
sew little garments,
compare angelic visits:

And what does the angel say to you?

The angel says old women give birth,
fatherless children show the way,
the lonely and wandering are closest to God.

Like a grapefruit heavy with juice,
you are taut with blessing.

History will call you holy,
lowly, or brave.

But don’t forget—you are a body,
arms, legs, collarbone, earlobes, womb,
veins, fingernails, spine, uterus.

A body spilling its juices,
a heroine leaving home
so she can return to it,
a woman born again and again
into her total carnal goodness.

Advent 16: A Voice Through the Door

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Just something from Rumi today, whose poetry has been like food and water to me for several years. This is from Daily Readings, translated by Coleman Barks:

A Voice through the Door

Sometimes you hear a voice through the door
calling you, as fish out of water
hear the waves, or a hunting falcon
hears the drum’s Come back. Come back.

This turning toward what you deeply love
saves you. Read the book of your life,
which has been given you.

A voice comes to your soul saying,
Lift your foot. Cross over.

Move into the emptiness
of question and answer and question.

Advent 15: Lost in the Woods

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Parker Palmer had a beautiful Facebook post this morning, referencing David Wagoner’s poem Lost :

I thought of [getting lost in the woods] when I woke up this morning feeling a bit lost in the wilds of my own life—lost because, for the moment, I’m without a strong sense of purpose. My temptation is to run madly toward something, anything, that feels like it might fill that void.

But that’s the way to become even more lost! So I need remember what happened on that mountain trail. I didn't keep running trying to find what I'd lost. I stopped until it found me.

Right now, my job is to wait out this feeling of being lost, to open myself to life and trust that it will find me—if I keep my eyes and ears open and am willing to follow the clues.

As David Wagoner says in this marvelous poem, "Stand still. The forest knows / Where you are. You must let it find you."

I love his phrase, “Getting lost in the wilds of my own life.” And how honest he is about being without a strong sense of purpose. (After the many books he’s written and non-profits he’s started, I want to tell him to take a breath! But that’s probably why this time in his life feels so uncertain.)

In the last week, I’ve felt lost in the wilds of my parenting life. It turns out that adolescence is a real phenomenon wherein one’s child might lose his way and wonder who he is. And it turns out that is painful for everyone and can’t be totally mitigated by a mother, no matter how enlightened or emotionally intelligent she may imagine herself to be.

I have such an urge to FIX things, to treat this whole season as a technical challenge with a technical solution. But I know it’s an adaptive challenge for all of us, and that relaxing into who we are is a journey that may start in adolescence, but continues throughout our whole lives.

This morning I went to a cycling class at the YMCA. Those 75 year-olds kick my butt every time. The instructor played rock-n-roll Christmas hits. The man on the bike to my right sang every word to Bruce Springsteen’s Merry Christmas Baby, and the senior in the back of the room wore a t-shirt that said “Yeah” in glitter letters. I said to myself, “Everything is going to be alright.”

And then I had breakfast with my friend Janel and cried all over my toast. She said, “I will leave my phone on. You can call me in the middle of the night if you need to.”

Okay, Parker. Okay, God—“Right now, my job is to wait out this feeling of being lost, to open myself to life and trust that it will find me.” At least for today, I was found.

Advent 14: Remembering to Notice

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When I was 18, Denise Levertov’s book Evening Train was assigned to me in my Modern Poetry class with Dr. Delaney. I remember the splurge of buying all those books at the campus bookstore, and I remember the decision not to sell them back—R.S. Thomas, Seamus Heaney, Dylan Thomas. What wonderful gluttony that was!

Levertov moved to Seattle for the last 8 years of her life and wrote many poems about Mt. Rainier. Not climbing it or conquering it, but letting glimpses of it inspire her everyday life and writing. Her poetry has always helped me notice what’s around me.

Here’s a favorite about noticing. I hope your day is full of it.

Witness

Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils in inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
to reconfirm
that witnessing presence.

Advent 13: It's Good to Be Human

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Had some driving time today, and heard Rob Bell, emphatic as ever, say, “It’s good to be human!”

My faith has had a lot of twists and turns over the years, and my experience of the Divine is always changing. I’d call myself “trans-spiritual” or “inter-spiritual” these days, but what I love about the Jesus story is that it’s about being human. Anything that starts with a refugee family having a baby in a barn is something that will captivate me forever. Here’s a poem I wrote a few years ago about that.

Crèche

Christmas stories are piling up.
You see them everywhere, stories of
powerlessness, wandering,
no room at the inn. Stories of kingdoms
bent on domination,
fear, fear, fear.

You don’t know if it’s true—
shepherds watching flocks,
wise men from the east,
angels, mangers, glory in the
highest and all that.

But one thing is truer than history—
love doesn’t wait. Love doesn’t hang back,
demand comfort, status, or a clean hospital.
It’s born everywhere, all the time.

Whoever the characters were and
whatever they’ve become through the years,
here’s the real crèche:

your willingness,
your yes,
how you can enter a smelly barn
and find God in the cold.

—SMK

P.S. Photo snapped at my friend Jenn’s house where I spent the day. The eggs were gathered by her beautiful daughter Leona this morning.

Advent 12: No Wrong Seasons

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In this excerpt from her poem “Hurricane,” Mary Oliver describes wrecked trees coming back to life:

But listen now to what happened
to the actual trees;
toward the end of that summer day they
pushed new leaves from their stubbed limbs.
It was the wrong season, yes,
but they couldn’t stop. They
looked like telephone poles and didn’t
care. And after the leaves came
blossoms. For some things
there are no wrong seasons.
Which is what I dream of for me.

There is no wrong season for new love, repair, or forgiveness. There is no wrong season for leaving your job or starting a new one, no wrong season for being surprised by friendship or adventure or taking up knitting, painting, mountain climbing, singing, or botany. You might look like an old peeling telephone pole and then burst into bloom. How beautiful. How disruptive. How like the universe.

Advent 11: Be Transported

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This morning my stylist Anna cut my hair (okay—and colored it—sheesh). I always look forward to being in her studio and talking about life.

I mentioned a favorite love song and sent her a link. While my hair was setting, she played it on her phone and we listened together. I teared up a little (surprise) and we had what one might call a moment, connecting with one another and with all of life, really. We were transported. If Emily had been there, she probably would have sighed, “I love love.”

Much as I’m sustained by my inner life, that fire needs fuel. I’m grateful for all the numinous experiences I’ve had in my meditation corner. But I’m equally grateful for a world of amazing people, projects, places, books and ideas to push off of. Everywhere I look, there are springboards, transporting me into beauty, justice, kindness, wisdom, sorrow, or love. This morning, it was Eddie Vedder’s voice and what that song means to Yancey and I. And it was the experience of really listening to it with someone.

What transports you? What can you count on to bring you back to yourself? Here’s a short, idiosyncratic list of what’s transported me lately or in the last year or two:

  • The poetry of Ellen Bass, especially her volumes Like a Beggar and The Human Line

  • Green Book, movie out now about an unlikely friendship between a world-class black musician and an Italian bouncer from the 1960’s NYC night club scene

  • The movie Itzhak about Itzhak Perlman, his music and zest for life, his perseverance despite disability, and all the ways he’s given his life to students

  • Insomniac City, book, the story of Bill Hayes and Oliver Sacks falling in love

  • Elizabeth Lesser’s book Marrow about she and her sister. Produced what’s now a strong refrain of mine, “Every relationship has the potential to be a little better than it is.”

  • The Best we Could Do, a graphic novel by Thi Bui about immigrating to America with her family after the Vietnam War

  • Esther Perel’s podcast Where Should we Begin?, chronicling real-life couples talking about their relationships

  • The Robcast, Rob Bell’s podcast about God, life, and whatever he feels like talking about

  • Touching a tree, which is so easy to do in Bellingham—feeling its rough bark under my hands, letting my life join with its life

We have some wise guides in this life—there is always someone who’s been through what we are going through, who’s thought about or experienced something before we have and who can help light the way.

Advent 10: Flying takes Two Wings

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My pastor Sharon talked about joy this morning, and she showed this clip. Aleksander Gamme is a Norwegian adventurer and explorer, and the first to complete an unsupported trip to the South Pole and back. On the way in, he hid supplies and snacks in snow-covered caches. He purposely did not keep track of what he left so it would be a surprise.

On day 86 of his 87-day trek, he comes upon his last cache and expects to find the annoying practical things he’s found in the other ones—batteries, water purifying equipment. Instead, he finds Cheez Doodles, candy, and cheese, and he goes crazy with happiness. I barely ever click on links to videos, but do yourself a favor and click on this one. It might make your day.

There is the obvious takeaway here, which is, “Could I be the kind of person to go ecstatically crazy over a such a small thing?” It’s a reminder to us in our world of diminishing returns when we get antsy for the Netflix show to load or throw food out because it’s not exactly what we feel like eating.

Beyond that, though, my question is, “Am I up for the highs and the lows?” Gamme’s joy is largely due to the fact that he’s been living in deprivation—snow, sleet, cold, just enough calories. Because he’s been exposing himself to the elements, really pushing the limits of his humanity, all it takes is a bag of chips for him to soar to the heights. His happiness is in direct proportion to his discomfort.

I’m not arguing for masochism here, but if your life is anything like mine, it’s organized around comfort and security. Everything from the temperature of the house to deeper things like avoiding negative emotions. We avoid these in all sorts of ways, numbing ourselves through food, alcohol, drugs, shopping, image management, unhealthy relationships, even good things like exercise or spirituality. When we do that, we might be avoiding pain, but we’re also missing out on the Cheez Doodle dance! The tidal, total freedom of losing ourselves in the wonder of life, whooping with delight. I wish that for me, I wish that for you, whatever storms are brewing or behind us. Suffering and joy are wings of the same bird—without both of them, we can’t fly.

(P.S. The photo is from my time at Grace Cathedral in SF a few days ago. It’s an art installation of hundreds of paper birds suspended above the sanctuary. I caught it at the exact moment the sun was coming over the hill. A Cheez Doodle moment, for sure.)

Advent 9: Absence

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Had a quiet walk through the bare winter woods, feeling companionable with the trees and sky. I’ve been listening to Rob Bell’s 11-part podcast series on Jesus, and heard today that “Efficiency may not be God’s highest goal for your life.” Isn’t that relieving? How boring and exhausting that would be.

The bare trees remind me to be empty, to make friends with darkness, quiet, and hibernation, to relax into the way things are instead of trying to hustle.

December Trees

Puncturing winter sky,
a rough, reaching tapestry
of strength and loss,
colors long gone,
they become absence,
make space for the light.

Advent 8: I'm Lonely Sometimes

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My dad works at the Lighthouse Mission in Bellingham and every time we are together, he has saved up some stories. They are always poignant and full of humanity. He was with two of the guests recently who remarked to one another, “The holidays suck.” My dad (the most practiced observer I know) teared up telling me that, and we talked about how this time of year is painful for so many.

I am not homeless, poor or grieving a death or divorce. I am not sick or away from home. But I am familiar with loneliness. If we let ourselves listen, that’s the human condition.

Emily and I were talking about loneliness this week, and she said, “I don’t want to be ashamed of it.” Sometimes I feel alone when I’m in a crowd or with a friend. I feel alone when I wake from a dream about loss or failure. I feel alone when my phone is silent for too long. When Yancey is on shift over the weekend, I can go a long time without interacting with another adult, and I’ll think, “Is something wrong with me?”

I’ve heard a few spiritual teachers talk about our phones as mindfulness devices. And they are not talking about getting a meditation app! They’re suggesting that every time we reflexively pick up our phones, we ask, “What need am I trying to meet?” I’ve begun doing this, and often my answer is “I don’t want to feel alone.” I want to know someone is thinking about me. I want to know I matter to someone, that I’m connected, worthy, or valuable.

I could give a lot of tips here for taking the edge off loneliness, and you’ve heard them all. Plan ahead, read, text a friend, listen to music, join the YMCA. This season, I’m thinking of Mary, bringing her baby into the world in a stable. No mothers or mother-in-laws around, no friends rubbing her feet or bringing her ice chips. No meal deliveries, no “Congratulations” to the unwed mother. But she had something that’s available to all of us—a holy encounter, an angelic visitor that instructed her, “Don’t be afraid! Your ordinary life is extraordinary, though you can’t believe it. Don’t pick up your phone, don’t distract yourself, don’t keep track of who has been there for you or not. Just watch and wait, and the miracles will keep happening.” THAT is what our loneliness can summon, if we are brave enough to let it.

Advent 7: You are Loved

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Last time I was in San Francisco, the reader board at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts said, “The real leaders walk among us.” It was a year after the 2016 election, and it was exactly what I needed to hear. This morning it said, simply, “You are Loved.”

I walked from there to the top of Nob Hill and sat in the sun on the steps of Grace Cathedral. I listened to a a song that made me cry (link here, click on the first song on the album). At 44, what’s finally changing is that my very loud Inner Critic is starting to quiet down. I used to think that if I quit listening to her, I’d be less good. Or less lovable, successful, or action-oriented. The truth of my belovedness is starting to slip past all that, and the sign this morning confirmed it.

So that’s what I want to say to you: You are Loved. Whether you are beautiful or homely, you are loved. Whether you are single or partnered. Whether you are happy or sad, confident or scared. Whether you are rich or poor or anything in-between. Whether you are in community or you are lonely, whether you are fat or thin. Whether your body works right or not. Whether Christmas makes you happy or wretchedly sad, whether your mother loved you or not, whether you’re employed or not, whether you think your work is meaningful or not. None of these things—not one—changes the essential, universal, not-told-enough truth that you are loved, you are beloved, your life is worth everything, and we should all be shouting from the rooftops about it. Amen.