The Gift of Today, Flash-Frozen

Frozen 3It’s Sunday morning.  There’s a pot of stew in the oven, the boy is sleeping peacefully, my Beloved is saving lives, and I am writing and sipping a peppermint mocha, while the dog gently snoozes next to me.  Ahhhhh.

The reason for all this is our local ice storm.  Outside my window, the trees are festooned with icicles (another word, like banana, that’s hard to know when it’s over).  I am breathing.  Just breathing.  Nothing needs to happen, nothing is pushing me, nothing is making me feel guilty.  I can write and sip coffee and get the yips later.  It’s all good.

This day is a gift.  The correct response to gifts is “Thank you.”  Not, “How can I turn this gift into a chore/guilt trip/productive flurry of activity?” 

On Facebook the other day, a friend posted the correct response when someone of a different faith or none at all gives you the gift of well-wishes, whether Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Festive Kwanzaa, Season’s Greetings, Happy New Year, or Joyous St. Michaelmas.  It’s “Thank you; you too.”

Grace.  Grace is like breathing gently in the icy morning.  There are far fewer mountains worth dying on than we think.  We all know people who are willing to die on molehills, or worse, sacrifice other people on molehills.  Let’s not.

This second Sunday of Advent is about love.  Let’s do that.  Let’s love our neighbors, our families, people who have hurt us, even ourselves, with the super-natural love that comes from outside us and blooms within us.

The prophet Isaiah, talking about God’s messiah, said that in the messiah’s day:

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.   The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.   They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

 Until that day, may the promise of peace and the grace of love be the hallmark of the people who live in anticipation!  

Moses and Micrographia

Last week, having a bad day at the beach, I started doing a brain dump with a pencil.  I wrote everything that was making me unhappy on a sketchbook page, in tiny lines that eventually formed a kind of jellyfish-looking thing.  It was so charming (on a purely aesthetic level) that I decided to do one with all the things I liked and was thankful for.  That turned out more floral and curved, and there’s probably something deeply psychological there that I—insert symbol for irony here—don’t have time for right now.

Micrographia are beautiful drawings, made in lines of tiny text.  In the Eighteenth Century and following, Jewish scholars used this method to interact with scripture and meditate on the words.  After they were finished, the drawings hung in European synagogues and homes as blessings and reminders of the promises and requirements of God.

The example on this page, from the Library of Congress’ collection of Jewish art, is a portrait of Moses done in words–the entire book of Deuteronomy, to be exact, and I’m guessing that, if you do a portrait of Moses made up of  Deuteronomy, you gain a whole new respect for both.  You also unite hand and brain in a single purpose, so that the words make sense as words and as a drawing.  It’s a way to work on the thinking and  the words.

Today I’ve been bumming a little, because even with a rewrite, my students are struggling to get out of their ruts.  They tell me that they know what they want to say, but they can’t put it into words.  The default assumption here seems to be that the thinking is fine, but the words have let them down.

That’s backward, I suspect.  It’s possible that the words don’t come because the thoughts are gormless.  It’s true of my own writing and thinking, and I have a feeling I’m not alone.  We need to slow down here and think about things.  I know it’s the Advent season.  I know everybody has 9,765,342 things to do before next Tuesday, but really, it might be worth it to make some tiny text lines of your own as a meditative practice.  When the thoughts line up, the words come.

 

Gratitude, Not Platitude

cranesOur youngest daughter  calls Thanksgiving “Christmas Tailgate,”  which makes me a little nuts.  On the Saturday after Christmas, she drags out the ornaments, lobbies for a tree, and generally whoops and hoots until we get the decoration thing going.  A lot of my friends have their houses all decked out before Thanksgiving, and I guess this is becoming the new trend.  Heck, Target put out its Christmas schlock right after Halloween.

This bothers me a bit, first because I’m still in curmudgeon mode and just acknowledging that does not make it go away, and second, because Thanksgiving is so wonderful in its own right; yes, even the feast.  There is nothing immoral about feasting with people you love, so enjoy a guilt-free day.

One of the cooler Facebook games is the one where people post one thing they’re thankful for on every November day.  It’s fun to to see what other people value.  I prefer the silly and true as opposed to the predictable and grandiose, but that’s just the curmudgeon again.   Anyway, it has got me to thinking about what I’m thankful for.  Too often we answer with what we’re “supposed” to say, and not with the close-to-the-bone truth, and that happens because we make a mistake at the bottom of gratitude.

Loving something or someone is NOT the same thing as being thankful for it or him or her or them.  Being thankful means acknowledging something/someone as a gift, given by a real giver, and the thankfulness is directed to the giver of the gift, not the warm fuzzy of the affection for the gift itself. So I started thinking, “What am I thankful for?  What do I acknowledge as a gift, every single day?”

And one answer is—words.

Oddly enough, I struggle with words.  Not in writing them, because if you do something pretty much your whole life, you get a kind of facility with it.  I have been writing stuff since my sister, our friend Linda, and I put on plays where we were kids.  They weren’t . . . good.  A horse was a requirement, as was dressing in Mom’s nightgowns.  It made some kind of sense then; I digress.

The point about struggling with words is that, when I have to explain how I feel about something, or what is really bothering me, I have a hard time finding the words.   I’ve learned to dial back to the simple, root thing that is causing all the trouble and name that.   Last night, for instance, the root cause of a small meltdown was missing my sister, whom I want to be with today more than I want turkey or any of that stuff.  (It didn’t work out this year.  It will be okay.)

I am thankful for words—strong, gentle, silly, true, lies, tales, excuses, stories, whines, poems—words spill out of us and take bits of us with them.  Language is a miracle.  Words are little miracles.  I am thankful to the Giver of words, without whom, and without which none of the rest of this is even possible.

Keep ’em real.  Use ’em wisely.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Why You Will Never Find Inner Peace Out There

Sometimes a drive to the OuterBanks goes by like a dream, a quick flurry and six hours later we’re on the beach at Owens, waiting for check-in time down in Rodanthe.  That would be summer.  This is November, and my Beloved and I were both critically underslept.  I drove the worst part of the trip—Greensboro to Raleigh—so that my Beloved could sit beside me with his knuckles in his mouth and his heart in his throat.  This is good for him; it makes him appreciate his life and the fact that it continued past yesterday morning.

November, while it is not without charm, is not a northern beach kind of month.  It’s not . . .  warm.  The town of Nags Head rolls up at six p.m., and that’s why we didn’t go down to Rodanthe.  Six p.m. is GREAT in Nag’s Head;  down banks, the towns rolled up in October.  Here we have access to Harris Teeter nearby.  It’s amazing.

November oceanWe are on the Outer Banks because they are not home.  As much as I love home, last Thanksgiving was one of the hardest, yet most precious days of my life.  Next year, I will be able to celebrate it there again with all kinds of food-intensive hoo-ha, but THIS year, I have to make some sense of last year.

Since January I have written about 125,000 words in a journal.  It’s kind of staggering, even to me.  It translates to about 250 pages of a very bad novel, and it took the place of every other kind of writing, including this blog.  Every morning, before I did anything else, I wrote 600 words.  Oh, I missed some days here and there, and didn’t write much during our summer vacation, but for the most part, my days started with 600 words.  (They still do; it’s such a helpful practice, I plan to carry on until they carry me out feet first.)

What were they?  Mostly banal, to tell the truth:  things that happened, things I had to do, things that struck me about the world.  But they also have passages of transcendent beauty, the kind that comes in sunrise flashes and reminds me that life goes on and is still good. In some places, particularly last winter, there is a lot of anger.

I mean a LOT of anger.  The surprising emotion I felt after Mom’s death was anger:  not at her, or at God, or even at the things we said or didn’t say to each other.  Just anger, and if it has to have a focus, I would say the focus was on the empty spot in me that would not, could never, be filled again.

As I looked back and read the words, I realize that a kind of dream has come out of the good and bad of the past year—my job as a writer is to give voice to the joy and hope that remain in the world.  In fact, those things are worth more when thrown into sharp relief by grief and pain.

We suffer because we love.  We love because that is, in so many ways, what we were made to do.  I believe that the suffering is redeemed, and that love is always worth the risk.  The brutal ocean out my windows is violent on its surface, but the things that live there are deep down.  Life is brutal and violent on the surface, but the undercurrent is a choice.

I’ve come to the ocean, a place I don’t love, to sort some things out. (I’m more of a mountain person, because I like things that move slowly and don’t pound sand up your nose without provocation.)  I may be pontificating beyond what the facts support, but I’m going out on a limb here and saying that the world was never improved by whiny, negative, angry people, who internalize every hurt and hold onto every pain.

So Looking at the World is changing its focus slightly.  Yes, I’m still interested in observing whatever of the wonderful minutia of life that catches my brain, but I want this to be a place where you, whoever you are, can come and find something in your day to make you smile, wonder, and find some peace, or at least some piece of truth you can hang onto in the maelstrom.

Today’s piece of truth is:  We become what we focus on.  Let’s choose that carefully and intentionally.

Rampage on the New . . . Or Something Like That

Back when I, like Jimmy Buffet, was a tranquil little child, we lived on a hill in Allisonia overlooking the New River.  The hill part is important, because about twice a year, the New would rampage from the railroad embankment on our side to the edge of the hills on the Delton side.

People built their houses on the hillsides and planted corn in the fertile floodplain.

Then, in a decade-long dry spell, people bought the floodplain and built houses there.  The river didn’t seem to rampage quite so often, although when it did, and these folks complained, natives would point to sticks and leaves wedged in the forks of Sycamores 18 feet above the river and say “Did you read the sign when you bought the place?”

The river is rampaging now, boys and girls, and here, because pictures are worth more than prose, is a sampling of what it was like in Allisonia and Delton today.

The road, obviously, is on the right.  We will not be fording this today, nor will you.

The road, obviously, is on the right. We will not be fording this today, nor will you.

 

Site of the famous boat launch of my sis and her friend Linda.  Somewhere.

Site of the famous boat launch of my sis and her friend Linda. Somewhere.

 

The river has been in the church basement, so this isn't all that high.  Rampaging all the same, though.

The river has been in the church basement, so this isn’t all that high. Rampaging all the same, though.

2013-01-31 16.18.04

Incarnation!

For the first Christmas ever, we have none of our children with us.  The girls are with their other families, and their brother has to work.  Last night was a bit lonely after Christmas Eve service, although texting with the Boy made it easier.

This is the cat's eye nebula.  I think God looks a lot like this.

This is the cat’s eye nebula. I think God looks a lot like this.

This morning, though, in the unaccustomed freedom, I feel thankful and peaceful.  It gives me a little time to think about the mysterious, scandalous, hard-to-believe point of Christmas – the incarnation, God-With-Us, Emmanuel.

The tendency of some Christians to Easterize Christmas has always annoyed me – cards with babies reaching out for instruments of torture, for instance, or the shadows of rafters making a cross over a tiny child.  Listen, just because we already know the end of the story doesn’t mean we jump to it first.

Take a deep breath.  Let the crucifixion go for a moment.  Think about incarnation, what it means.  The Word became flesh, John said, and dwelt among us.  And we beheld his glory, as of the only begotten of Father, full of grace and truth.

The scandal of Christianity is this Word-Made-Flesh, God choosing to intersect humanity as a human, born of a human woman, needy as any baby.  God chose to enter God’s own creation.  Stop right there.  I know you jumped to Easter, but don’t.  God chose to enter God’s own creation as a creature.

One summer day (forget carols about the bleak midwinter), God put God’s self into history, into time, and into humanity.  God arrived like all humans, with an expiration date.  God arrived like all humans, helpless and empty, waiting to be taught.  If we strip away the Christian-speak for a moment, we can think about it like this:  the infinite Creator, fathomless and timeless and incomprehensible, a being beyond all knowing or understanding, became one of us, so that God could make God comprehensible to minds that are finite, stuck in time, brief flickers of understanding.

That is Incarnation, the mystery we celebrate with lights, tinsel, gifts, music.  God could not watch God’s creation struggle and cry out in fear and do nothing, so God intervened.  In characteristic fashion, God did not intervene with divine wrath, punishment, and turning people to charcoal; God put God’s self on the line, knowing that there was only one way out of that body.  Now we know what God looks like.

He looks like a baby.

Merry Christmas.

Skipping Church

DawnThis morning, I am playing hooky from church.  There will be hell to pay for this, not on account of church, which has always been pretty gentle about attendance, but on account of my nephew, who will perseverate and badger my friends, and when he sees me at noon, will immediately ask why I was not there.

I haven’t decided whether to confound the felony of skipping church by lying.  My students make “I overslept,” do duty for “I could not face one more day of Walt Whitman,” although they sometimes also use “I had a headache” to good effect.

What I will not tell my nephew is this:

Sometimes, when your heart hurts, church is the last place you can be.  This morning was our children’s Christmas pageant, and I’m sure our kids were adorable.  I love them, and normally I love the Christmas pageant in all its tinseled glory.  But not today.

Three Sundays ago I sat behind my mother in her hospital bed, holding her head so she could breathe.  She could not talk to me.  I think I heard her voice for the last time on November 24th.  She died in the wee hours of November 26, in the arms of a young woman who loved her but not in mine.  I have put that into a mental file of things I’ll think about someday.

I find myself putting the tragedy at Sandy Hook into that same category.  If I need to sort it out in my own mind, someday I will.  I watch people on Facebook pile that grief onto themselves, as if that helps, and think about how we have shrunk God to some impotent little feel-good deity who watches as helplessly as we do, when awful things happen.

I do not believe in that god.

What I do believe is that we are truly free moral agents.  We can choose to do right things or wrong things, and God has chosen not to stop us.  Anyone who thinks that’s not fair should try living in a cage for a while, because that’s what not having free will is.  But we have it, and the price we pay for having it is, and always will be, the suffering of the innocent.  This is the rot at the core of the apple, the dark stain on the soul of humanity, the thing that kills us as surely as a bullet from a madman.

We choose.

Badly.  Well.  We do the best we can, and it is not good enough.  We cry out to God to fix the madmen and the politicians and the broken hearts, and we miss the point, the reason we need God in the first place, the reason Christianity isn’t just another religion in a crowd of religions.  Guilt and grief don’t just go away.  Someone has to fix the soul, not the circumstances.  Alone among religions, Christianity puts the burden of that repair on the deity, where it belongs.

A strong person who makes a weak one do all the work is a bully.  God is not that.  God did all the work and said, “Here.  Take my teaching; it’s easy, and the burden is light.”  God did not say this so that we could live happy-shiny lives with no pain or suffering, but so that the rot at our cores can be cleaned away, and we can live with the consequences of our choices, and other people’s choices, without wacking out.

People who dismiss God as some kind of divine nut job who could prevent tragedy but doesn’t, have missed the point.  Santa Claus is the one who delivers all the presents; God is the one who meets the need – God alone has the ability to redeem the bad choices, to help us forgive ourselves and other people.  God has done everything God can do to teach us how to live, but God will not force us to live that way, or to accept forgiveness or to give it.  What God will do is give grace we don’t deserve, over and over and over.

Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person; it’s just the last thing.  The worst thing that can happen is living in the dark stain of anger, fear, hatred, self-loathing, ignorance . . . all those wrong choices that pile up on us an suffocate our souls.

Sometimes, I won’t tell my nephew, you have to sit alone in your dining room and sort that stuff out in your own mind.

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