Sunday, September 30, 2007

Oven Timers & Ladders

I come from a long line of first born daughters. Beginning with my great grandmother who was a daughter born among many sons, then she had one child: my grandmother. My grandmother had three daughters, her oldest is my mother, and I was her first-born, only daughter. Now I have four daughters of my own.

Consequently when I was growing up I was the only child in the midst of a great group of women. My mother was divorced, my grandmother widowed. One of my aunts was divorced and the other single. Men were scarce. They were a particular oddity to me.

I have always loved words and have always loved to talk. I talked quite early in life. My aunt used to set the oven timer and offer me a quarter to remain silent until the five minute timer went off. I never got a quarter. Never.

Books were my best friends. My mother taught me to read before I went to school. And later she introduced me to Harlequin Romances and Grace Livingston Hill. She would tell people that if I could not find a book, then I would read the Funk & Wagnells encyclopedias that we had in the house. I would come home from school and eat my dinner while reading. I can remember in 5th grade I read over a hundred books. But I talked and asked questions as much or more than I read.

And this incessant talking and questioning often got me or someone else in or out of trouble.

My grandmother was widowed rather early in her marriage. She kept the farm and worked it or had it worked until she died. Once, when I was about five years old, she hired a painter to paint the exterior of her house. He set up his ladder and was working on the side of the house. I sat in the yard under some of my favorite trees and watched this male oddity. Remember, there were few men in my life. Bless his heart—little did he know what was coming. For a while I was quiet. Then I began to ask questions. Just curious questions.

“Why are you doing that? Why this color? Are you going to use that brush? Will this take you a long time?”

My next question almost caused him to fall off his ladder. Poor man. I wish I could apologize.

I asked him if he would please marry my grandmother.

My grandmother was all alone and lonely ( I thought), and I wanted her to have someone to take care of her. Would he consider marrying her? Now, honestly I do not know if this man was married or not. I do remember that the ladder wobbled, and he chuckled in a way I did not understand. I found out later he told my grandmother what I had asked.

I got in trouble. I was scolded and told in no uncertain terms that I could not just go around asking someone to marry my grandmother or anyone else. These type of questions were inappropriate. I am not sure if I did not understood, or if I simply did not agree.

The next proposal I made was not quite as innocent. My youngest aunt was/is beautiful and quite intelligent. (The same aunt who set the oven timer and offered me a quarter). I met several of her beaus, because she would bring them home to meet my grandmother. And when she did I spied on them.

My grandmother had a beautiful yard—one of my most treasured places in the world. And everyone loved to sit on the front porch or out on the slope that led down to the road. It was on this slope that my aunt and her boyfriend were sitting. I was spying—watching from the trees. I came from behind and goosed them; apparently I was stealthy in my approach because I startled them.

I do believe, since I am now on this side of forty, that they were about to kiss when I interrupted. I thought this beau was quite handsome, and I was intrigued and immediately infatuated. So I asked what I thought was a very logical, reasonable question.

“Are you going to marry my aunt?”.

The same chuckle that the ladder man had came from both of them. For some reason my aunt would not look at the young man sitting beside her. She only glared at me. She told me to go away, but I insisted on staying. They got in his car and left. I never saw him again. After that incident my aunt was very careful when she brought her dates home, and she tried to find out where I was before she sat on the porch or in the yard again.

My mom and the women of my family just could not impress on me their rules and parameters for appropriate questions.

I was still asking questions in college. At the end of class, the professor would ask if any one had any questions, I know my classmates were all mentally begging me to be quiet. They wanted me to understand that this was just a rhetorical question. A mere formality. But I did not or would not understand this. And their heads dropped when I raised my hand.

Some things never change.

I still love words. At times I still read while eating dinner.

And there are times when I still ask probing, seemingly inappropriate questions. But rest assured, I do try to be careful and make sure the person is not on a ladder or about to kiss. And sometimes I look at the clock. Sometimes.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

My Labyrinth Prayer

I was walking into McDonald's not too long ago, and my daughter came from behind and grabbed my hand and held it. She grinned at me and explained that she knew that “holding hands” was on my list (see No Particular Order in the archives). And my beautiful, eighteen year old daughter walked beside me swinging my hand as if we were six year olds on the playground.

Oh! The sheer, sweet joy of her...

This hand holding with my daughter reminded me that the deep longings of our souls come true, but often their form does not fit our preconceived notions, ideals, or expectations.

And we miss them.

With an utter sense of awe, I realize many of my longings are being satisfied, but I am not immediately aware; often I am not recognizing them. My daughter's thoughtful actions triggered a greater awareness in me. She expanded my box of perceptions and awareness of how these fulfilments can manifest.

I mentioned in No Particular Order that I wanted to walk a prayer labyrinth—this is my particular longing for the mystical and artistic form of prayer. I searched the Internet for places within driving distance for a labyrinth. All the while not realizing what was happening—right here, right now.

I have returned to walking on a regular basis. My knee has healed and is no longer tender. This morning I walked in the early dawn. The sky was still dark and clear, only a darker gray smattering of cirrus clouds could be seen. Brilliant stars perforated the inverted, blue bowl. I found the Little Dipper. I could hear the host of insects in their myriad of song. There was a slight breeze, and there was little humidity.

I breathed deep.

With the breath came a startling realization:

My circuitous walking path has become my prayer labyrinth.

The reality of this labyrinth did not fit my preconceived idea, however, it did fit and fulfill my longing.

I have been trying to find an inner stillness—a quiet place where my self dialogue is not continuous and chaotic. My walks have aided in this attempt. As I take each step I acknowledge I have to release even the trying—the striving often creates turmoil. An anxiousness. My mind sounds like the Little Engine that could, “I have to be still, I have to be still, I have to be still.”

But during my journeys in the early hours of the morning, there is a moment when my mind finally winds down to a small inner cell. The cell is slight and narrow, and the time I actually remain there is brief, but in that glorious, lucid moment I am still.

I am at the center of my labyrinth.

In this stillness I know that He is God.

And the moment becomes prayer.

My Labyrinth Prayer

Lord God,

Walk with me around the spiraling corridor of my asphalt path.
Let the sound of my shoes become the cadence of my inner worship.
Let the street lamps be reminders—pillars of remembrance to your faithfulness.

As I kick the rocks and pebbles in my path,
and when I lose my footing on the crumbling edge of the road—
remind me that you will catch me when I stumble.
You will steady me.
You will set me aright.

As the light calls to the morning,
Call to me, O God.
As the darkness gives way to light,
Help me to give way and be enlightened.

As the darkness recedes,
let me be filled with your light gradually—
slowly so that my fragile self will not be completely undone.
I cannot encompass you.

As I tread along my course inward,
help me shed and discard everything
that will not lead or aid me in my journey toward you.

As my awareness of your Presence increases,
take me to a place until it is just you and me.
Please tighten and narrow the spiraled cell
so that my my awareness of self
dissipates in your Presence.

As I push aside all my preconceived notions,
manifest yourself to me and in me.
Be the reality of my longings.
Let me see only you.

As I dwell in this still, lucid moment with you—no matter how brief—may I know you.
Lord God, I ask that you increase the length
each time I join you there.

Then when I have seen you—
when my moment of awareness is done—
help me to walk outward again.
Retrace my steps with me and
help me to retrieve
only those things which will enable me
to bless and bring lucidity to others.

Amen and amen.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Pedestals

A couple of years ago my good friend and I took our daughters to the Cincinnati Art Museum. Needless to say, our daughters were ready to leave long before we were. I am quite sure that my meanderings seemed aimless to many, but I was seeing and absorbing. I kept returning to an area where the pieces of art were displayed on pedestals. I was drawn to these extraordinary, 3-D works of art, because they were alone, lifted up, and set apart.

After visiting the museum I came home to a renewed vision for my own art. I started perusing ebay and our local indoor peddler's mall for old candle holders—anything that reminded me of a pedestal. I wanted to use them for displaying my sculpted figures.

Pedestals.

They haven't just been used for art.

Often we lift people (leaders, ministers, celebrities, parents, friends, teachers, authors, spouses, saints) and put them on these elevated places. You have heard this phrase: “Oh, she has him on a pedestal.” We have raised someone high above others. Glorified and idealized.

In doing this we want and demand more from them. They can do little or no wrong. We expect perfection. We place them in this hazardous place. We contribute to the set-up of a fall.

And you have heard: “He was knocked off his pedestal.” There seems to be a sense of diluted glee when you hear this comment. Maybe the person thought too highly of him/herself and fell. Maybe they climbed there through their own efforts with just a boost from us. Regardless, their footing was lost and they skittered or plunged to the bottom.

We forget that often there are rocks and boulders below.

We should not place people on pedestals to be displayed and examined. Our loved and respected ones (and we) cannot absorb the attention and be left unaffected.

People cannot sit on such precarious and precipitous edges. People cannot bear the weight of being alone, lifted up, and set apart. Eventually the lack of oxygen at such heights will cause dizziness and hallucinations.

Pedestal positioning and sitting contributes to:

Dangerous expectations. Delusions of grandeur. Deceptive security.

Be very careful and intentional in how you use a pedestal. This place may seem like an honor. It may seem like a place of respect and admiration. There is a chance that it might be interpreted as a high compliment. But in reality it is a temporary, holding place until the next piece of art grabs our attention.

There is only One who can sit comfortably in this place and have no fear of falling. Only One who is undaunted and unmoved by the height, by the exaltation, by the weight. Only he can absorb the attention and not be affected. Only he can be alone, lifted up, and set apart and remain the same.

Use the pedestals for him.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

What if and If Only

Words are hard today. I feel like I am trying to squeeze them out of an almost dry kitchen towel. The towel is twisted and wrenched tightly. And the little water that comes from my efforts is just a sheen of moisture on my hands.

The words are there. Maybe they are not. Maybe I just want them to be.

I do know that four words have been haunting me.

What if and if only.

Past tense. Two, two word sentences, yet they have caused my soul to feel like my towel.

These sentences are filled with angst, regret, longing, torment, and pain.

What if and if only makes us revisit places we do not want to go. They cause us to examine old wounds and scars. They cause us to attempt to return to a place that for us does not exist anymore. A place where events and circumstances cannot be changed or altered.

Someone quite wisely told me that if you ask these questions you will be asking them forever. They become an endless litany of possibilities with no means to carry them through. They offer no hope.

If only...I had made a different choice earlier...or later.
If only...I had not said those words.
If only...I had been more attentive.

What if...I had chosen something different.
What if...I had waited.
What if...I had been honest.

What if and if only have no answers. They have thousands. And we could play each answer out, but we still would not know if that particular scenario was right. Any answer we might find will have the same question mark at the end.

Instead we should live with what is and now.

I can no longer ask the question what if. I must put my hand to the plow and not look back. What if will not help me to move forward; it will not help me press on. No, it causes me to stumble. To falter. I cannot change the what if.

I can look at the what is and the now and live. Not just exist. Not just survive.

In the midst of a crisis or devastating situation well-intentioned friends and acquaintances will offer Romans 8:28 as a catch-all safety net. When used in this way the verse seems trite and cliché.

But when we do look at what is and accept it, when we say okay, this is how it is--then God can and will take “all things and work them together”. But these if questions must be handed to him. They must be laid in his lap. Given to him as an offering. And he will accept them. He does not want us to live in the what if and if only. He does not abide there. He is the great I Am. The Now. The ever Present.

Remember: He was, He is, and He will be. All at the same time. In the same instant. And because this is who he is, because this is where HE abides he can work all things to the good of those who love him.

He will work our dead, burdensome what ifs and if onlys to our benefit. His forgiveness and grace allows us to leave these questions unanswered. My dear friend says that His mercy is wide. And wide covers a great deal of ifs.

I believe God's mercy is elastic.

Encompassing.

God's mercy is expansive, and no matter how far we stretch it, it will return to its original form.

Yes, I do believe this. We do not have the ability to change the radical mercy of God. Nothing we do or don't do can alter what and who he is.

And because this is true, I have hope. Hope that the mistakes (sins) and missteps (iniquities) of my what ifs and if onlys are belted and covered by his mercy.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Lloyd and Madeleine

"Most of us are called on to perform tasks far beyond what we believe we can do. Our capabilities seldom match our aspirations, and we are woefully unprepared. To this extent, we are all Assistant Pig-Keepers at heart."
--Lloyd Alexander
01/24/1924--05/17/2007


It's a good thing to have all the props pulled out from under us occasionally. It gives us some sense of what is rock under our feet, and what is sand.
-- Madeleine L'Engle
11/29/1918--09/06/2007

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Sabbatical

At the beginning of August I started a walking program. At first I think I did so just to see if I could do it. I am not athletic. I do not enjoy sports, and my thoughts about exercise are better left unsaid. I knew, however, I needed a physical activity. Walking seemed to be the answer. I clocked a route and bought a pedometer.

The first week my legs burned. Actually they were screaming at me at the midway point. Sweat became my new fashion statement. I learned to find places on the way to be mile markers of my daily journey. I would mumble a quiet hello to the people putting out trash. I would wave at the elderly couple and their Jack Russell sitting on their porch reading the morning newspaper. They saw me at the beginning and end of my walk. They were my cheerleaders.

Change was slow, but real. I could feel my strength and stamina grow. But there were mornings when the round trip was endless, and the markers seemed to move.

I walked in silence and solitude six days a week for five weeks.

Early. Routine. Habitual. Disciplined.

Rarely ever was my silence broken.

Not only was something happening to my body, but something was happening in my spirit. This change was more subtle, harder to detect and pinpoint. I prayed on these walks—a different kind of prayer. My prayers were disjointed, fragmented, unconnected snatches and phrases that seemed random. Yet, intimate and conversational. Often my ideas for this blog would begin on these walks. Not only did I find that my legs burned, but so did my spirit.

The daily walk became a very special part of my morning office. What started out as an attempt to add some much needed physical activity became a sacred time for me. I was enjoying what this discipline was doing for my body and my soul.

On the evening of August 26, I decided to take my girls to get something fun for breakfast for our first day back to school the next morning. The girls were putting our dogs in their crates and turning off lights in the house.

I went to the car first. I rounded the front fender of my car, and before I actually realized what was happening I was falling. My left knee twisted, and I fell on the unforgiving asphalt. My purse and keys flew into the grass behind me. The immediate pain caused me to curl into a tight ball.

The porch light seemed far away and dim in the darkness. Time stretched. I tried to get up, but could not. My daughters were coming out of the house, and I did not want them to find me on the ground. I did not want to scare them. They were on the porch and almost to the car before I said something to them.

I dropped my purse and keys. You will have to help me find them.”
Notice what I did not say. They still lovingly tease me about the calmness of my voice that night.

They had to help me up. We still went to Wal-mart, and they wanted me to drive one of the motor carts. I did not.

I did not walk the next morning.

I consulted my wise yoda, and explained what happened. He asked a lot of questions. And then he told me what to do and what not to do. He knows. He has been injured before.

His recommendation? Ice and then heat. Do not walk for a week.

The first day I was glad not to walk. My whole body hurt. I kept finding scrapes and bruises. I even had a knot on my head.

The second day I did not walk. The wise yoda had warned me I would be even more sore on this day. He was right.

The third day I did not walk. And I wore the wrong kind of shoes to work.

The fourth day I was getting restless. My knee felt better and was not as tender as earlier in the week. No more falls or spills.

The fifth day I was beginning to really miss my morning walk. Frustration started to mount. I was aggravated and every twinge in my knee irritated me more. I was told I had been injured and my body needed to heal. Injury implies trauma. I fell. This did not seem like trauma to me. My left leg told me otherwise.

The sixth day a good friend came early in the morning, and we walked. No, I didn't wait the full week, and stubbornly I walked the full route. I walked the next two days. The second day I could only walk about a third of what I had been doing. I had to wait three more days before I could walk again.

Because I did not listen I was forced into a longer sabbatical. And I have been restless and in denial. My sacred time has been interrupted. I have been so afraid of getting out of the habit of my new found discipline that I have ignored wise counsel and my body's signals.

During this forced sabbatical, I have learned that we often have two approaches when dealing with our injuries:

We do not allow enough time for healing. We rush the process. We deny that there is pain. We try to deny the severity of the injury. We want to seem strong and have a high pain tolerance. We carry out the advice of the yodas for a short time—forgetting that they are prescribing the best course of action for us to be able to regain full mobility and range again. We deny ourselves rest. We are impatient and restless. Surely idleness can not be aiding the recovery here. We have to work this thing out. And we risk more damage and injury to an already weakened joint.

We nurse the injury long after it is healed. We do follow the well meant advice and instructions. We even add to them. We allow the recommended time for healing and then add some. We are overly cautious. We become afraid. We are frightened to test the injury. We avoid anything that would force us to do so. We need just a little more time and a little more space. We continue to limp. We keep the heating pad and ibuprofen nearby. Just in case. And atrophy begins.

I am guilty of both approaches. I have rushed, and I have nursed. I have benefited from neither.

I have had to learn the wisdom and balance of a sabbatical.

Bones, muscles, and tendons must be allowed sufficient time to heal, but they must eventually bear weight again.

I have been injured, and I simply needed time to heal.

I did not walk yesterday or today. I will start again tomorrow.

Early in the morning I will tie my new walking shoes (a gift from Yoda), slip my cell phone in my pocket, and write my girls a note.

Then I will walk. Both my legs and my spirit will burn.

And I will listen closely because my body and soul will tell me if the sabbatical has been long enough.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Stark Naked

When I was a young girl I had a recurring dream. This dream was a nightmare, but not in the typical and most used definition. But it was my nightmare; I hated this dream more than any other. Frantically I would wake up—desperate to be assured that “it was only a dream”. The disturbing dream subsided as I grew older and ceased altogether for many years, until I became pregnant with my first daughter.

You know this dream. There is a chance you have had it also, because I have learned that it is a fairly common occurrence.

I was at school (whichever one I was attending at the time) at the bottom or the top of a staircase in the presence of a large crowd. Now, crowds don't bother me except when something is amiss. And in this dream something was truly amiss. I would always be missing a very necessary piece of clothing. Always. And everyone else seemed to notice long before I did.

Naked before a crowd. No where to go—if I went up the stairs or down or if I took off running—there was just no where to go. No where to hide. And at the height of the embarrassment I would wake up.

Earlier this week I had an email conversation with Mac, my surrogate pastor and a true southern gentlemen. He said something that reminded me of this dream.

I shared with him that I had been removing some “garments” that I had thought I would never have to remove. I was taking off some clothing that in my mind had been a permanent part of my wardrobe. He said, “ I am very thankful that you have taken off some clothing; in fact, I am trusting that you will take it all off and stand stark naked before Him.”

That phrase “stark naked” caught my attention. I tried to avoid and ignore it for a few days. Then I remembered the dream. Why was this dream my nightmare? why did it cause such trauma? cause me to wake in a panic?

Because I was exposed.

I was bare and vulnerable. I was naked. The fact that I had a few clothes on did not matter, the most vulnerable parts of me were visible to the cruel scrutiny of the crowd. I could find no route of escape. I had no plan to avoid the stifled laughter, the outright taunts, and the pointing fingers.

Laid open. Exposed. Bare. Vulnerable.

Only my waking saved me. Or so I thought.

Over the years I started dressing in layers. Insulation to cover and hide my awkwardness, my discomfort, my insecurity, my embarrassment, and my shame. Maybe if I wore layers there would be more protection, and I would be less likely to lose an essential piece of clothing. Safety clothes. My clothing was also designed and chosen to camouflage my unsightly scars and excess flesh.

Mac's phrase uncovered a deep longing in me to stand stark naked before God and not be ashamed. I want to be free from the confines and fetters of my inadequate wardrobe.

But this is not easy. I am stripping away many garments that feel like a second skin. Adhered to my body by the years, the heat, the sweat, and the grime. And by habit. And even by love.

I do not know how close I really am to my own nakedness.

It is unclear to me how many layers I have left to shed—to pull away. But I need to be stripped: exposed, bare, vulnerable, and unashamed.

Long ago, when I was a girl having my dreams, I did not want to be naked. I am no longer a girl. I am a woman—grown, and I must put away my childish ways.

Someday I will stand naked before God. I will need no route of escape. I will need no plan of cover. There will be no stifled laughter, no taunting jeers, no judgmental head shaking, no wagging tongues, and no raised eyebrows. There will be no pointing out of my embarrassment and shame.

I will no longer need to hide. I will not need the layers anymore.

God will cover me. He will come behind and before me and envelop me in his garment.

And then he will reveal to me the stark, poignant beauty of my nakedness.