Poetry Doesn’t Pay, and Prayer Doesn’t Either

Irish poet Rita Ann Higgins has a poem called “Poetry Doesn’t Pay.”  I began the decade living for poetry.   I end the 2000s with one half remembered line and a focus on payment rather than poetics.

I’m still working on imagining my way out of my day job and into being an at home mom.  Oh what a passel of worries (“gremlins” as Magpie Girl calls them) have been stirred up as I imagine stepping into the void that is life without guaranteed salary and benefits!  One of the more bizarre worries that has emerged is how I’ll find spiritual nourishment in this new venture.

The role of spirituality in my life is not a bizarre concern, of course, but it’s generally considered rather superfluous to one’s career choices.  My current job certainly does not have a spiritual dimension.  Why would I expect the new home business I hope to pull together to have any direct connection to the way I talk to God?

I am coming to realize all the pressure I am putting on myself, on how I expect that earning money in a new way will change everything that motherhood has not already rearranged.  As much as I have liked the general direction of my life, Moira’s birth began the seismic quake I was waiting for.  Now I am looking for everything to shift; I am impatient for all of the random puzzle pieces of me to fall into place.

Some who know me in the “real world” might laugh to hear this, but my ideal job would be to be a priest.  There are several impediments, of course, seeing that I am female, and even if I could become an Episcopalian or something, I still cannot commit to Christianity solely enough to convince a congregation of my piety.  Since I don’t think I am quite ready to start holding revivals in my backyard and no established religions will have me (or I won’t have them…), it seems that prayer isn’t going to bring in a paycheck.  At least not directly…

I am overwhelmed by the weight of my dreams, my burdensome need for poetry and and a life that is purely mine from waking ’til sleep.  The love of my child, my husband, my home is a crippling curse and an incessant blessing and the only thing that matters at the end of the day.  This love is the stuff my prayers are made of.

May this love be strong enough.

May I be strong enough.

But nothing,
you can’t pay me in poems or prayers,
or your husband’s jokes,
or with photographs of your children
in lucky lemon sweaters hand made by your dead Great Aunt
who had amnesia and the croup

Rita Ann Higgins, “Poetry Doesn’t Pay”

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A Mass of Humanity

The church was as lovely as I have ever seen it.  A wall of poinsettias was set before the altar.  Evergreens glowing with white lights were draped in red ribbons were tucked in every alcove.  The music was perfect – a soloist accompanied by the harp and the piano – and the priest, a retired bishop, was all that you want a Catholic clergyman to be – thoughtful, appropriately self-deprecating, smiling, kind.  It was Christmas morning.

The homily made me ache for Moira, who was at home with my mother (the family splits into the Midnight Mass crowd and the morning church folk – this was the first time in a long while that I had to be in bed by 9:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve).  The bishop spoke of how all families change for the better with the addition of a little baby.  He assured the half-full church that he knew we’d all be wondering what a celibate knew of such things, but he had an understanding of human nature and heavenly nature that made up for the fact that he was only and observer of earthly family dynamics.

And then came time for the Creed.  My husband and I launched in, both muttering the words by rote.  I wondered how they echoed in his agnostic heart as I wondered at how easy it was to say I accepted in one version of One God and One Lord when, in reality, I lived a very different theology, finding gods and goddesses all over.

I watched as the bishop as he dug inside his robes for a handkerchief.  Without breaking from the prayer, this unselfconscious octogenarian wiped at his nose before the entire congregation.  As I began to smile broadly at this perfect display of humanity in this midst of all that godly talk, I realized we were on the bit about Pilate and Christ’s suffering.  The words were so automatic, the idea of crucifixion did not even register.  I was half in the moment; my focus on the fleshy plane, not the pious one.

When I finally wiped the grin off my face, I looked around at the other pews.  Earlier, I had been pitying the kids who had been torn from their toys and stuffed into new clothes to stand around listening to an old man, who no matter how endearing to the grownups, could never be more fascinating than Santa’s loot.  One girl, about seven or eight, wearing a headband that kept slipping onto her forehead and a crinkly dress that left her nowhere to put her hands was fidgeting as the long prayer droned on.  Her father, whose perfectly gelled hair and flawlessly pressed jacket could not make up for a severe, pock-marked face, looked down to her with a warning glance, his mouth still moving with the story of the religion.  The look worked and she resumed staring at the carpet.

One prayer, two human stories out of hundreds that were acted out while those familiar words flowed forth.  For all that it is easy to talk about the tyrannical dictates of the hierarchy and those endless rules and regulations that stifle the spirit, there are always the stories that you come in with, the humanity that you can hold dear even when you are acting according to the script of the mass.

I still stood on the outside looking in, but it was important somehow to take in not just the religious theater, but the movement of all the extras as well.

The Christians and the Pagans Sit Together Round the Cradle

Moira’s christening is set for next June.

Just three years ago, one of the many reasons we refused to marry in the Church was the requirement that we at least promise to raise our children in “the one true faith,” but those concerns faded last month when I took pleasure in asking my grandfather if we could have the baptism at his church.

Boughs of our Christmas tree are bending under the weight of a choir and a half of angels.  Our living room is decorated with not one, but two nativity scenes.

The trappings of the season, just to be expected in the homes of even casual believers to be sure.  But for me, the angels are there to represent the little girl who has been deemed our “Angel Baby.”  The figurines of the Holy Family are representative as much of the Christmas story as they are our new little family.  Images that are incontrovertibly Christian have essentially been co-opted to fit the shape of our family and our lives.

Do we all do this to a degree?  Finding our home in a religion, in a set of beliefs, in a path of any sort because they add depth or help to make sense of our experiences?

A year ago when I wrote in this space nearly every day, I often sounded like a lapsed Catholic working her way back to the fold.  After attending a nightmarish Easter mass celebrated by a priest who used the pulpit to wag a sanctimoniously admonishing finger at the unusually full pews, that crest of interest in my childhood religion receded once again.  I resumed my safe distance from the religion I have ignored or actively renounced for nearly half my life.

During my pregnancy, I had a few isolated pockets of spiritual lucidity (the rest was a bit of a fog in which I felt completely unable to organize my closet enough to get dressed, never mind my thoughts enough to write coherently) and in that time I felt much more drawn to the powers of a universal Mother than the specifics of Christianity.

Moira will be counted amongst the Catholic branch of flock to please our families and to mark her arrival with a ritual, even if it is not exactly the ritual I believe best marks initiation into this life.  Because I intend to raise her with a respect for all faiths and the curiosity to find whatever path to Spirit calls her by name, I have a couple of options.  I could leave her to be a religious tabula rasa with no ties to a specific faith and let her make all of the decisions when she is ready.  Or, I could  give her the same start that her father and I had and allow that to be one step along a journey that could bring her closer to the teachings of Rome or just be one ceremony among many in a seeker’s life.

Like superimposing the trinity of my own little family onto the family in that manger 2000 years ago, I am sculpting the Catholic traditions to suit my own needs.  I am Catholic enough to feel a little bit guilty about bringing Moira to an altar to have promises of single minded devotion to one version of God made upon her behalf.  I am still a little sad that a tradition as rich as this one is still not “enough” to satisfy my spiritual inclinations, but I think teaching her to find the Divine in all beings and help cultivate in her a true sense of compassion for all the world with counterbalance these little transgressions against a creed that is not my own.

My first departure from Catholicism was through paganism, which was the most rebellious, individualistic path I could imagine.  Now, I know that the two are far from antithetical and that both paths inform who I am now though neither shall ever define me.  Still, adherents to both views think they are forever living at opposite ends of the spectrum so much of the time, unless you are having a Christmas-Solstice dinner with Dar Williams…

Ash Wednesday in the House of Christianity

The cross, with which the ashes are traced upon us, is the sign of Christ’s victory over death. The words “Remember that thou art dust and that to dust thou shall return” are not to be taken as the quasi-form of a kind of “sacrament of death” (as if such a thing were possible). It might be good stoicism to receive a mere reminder of our condemnation to die, but it is not Christianity.

Thomas Merton

dsc00665I attended an ecumenical Ash Wednesday service this evening. The program they passed out gave us Merton’s introductory passage to glimpse what Christianity was not. As I stood in a chapel I had last entered when I attended a Rufus Wainright concert (not exactly a journey into the sacred as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John might have it), I came to realize how much I have to learn about what Christianity is.

Sure, I’ve got the basics down and I understand what it was to be raised a Catholic kid in the 80s. But for all my reading, it was not until I watched a sparsely attended ritual held together with a crazy quilt of readings and quotations that I was able to look through the windows of Christianity in a new way and realize, despite its many doors, it is still just one large house.

Though I now have a smudge of ash upon my forehead, I did not remember the significance of this temporary mark when I decided to step in after work. I am sure that I knew once, but it was not the sort of information I ever had to retain. All I knew was that it made sense that I was in that chapel. I needed a place for quiet contemplation to mark the day and the remnants of my own history and the power of ancestral memory set me comfortably enough in the Christian fold.

Perhaps it was because I am not a student, but for all that I had the credentials of a Christian, I still felt like I stood outside and looked in the windows of their ritual.

This is not to say that I felt alienated. In fact, I felt the complete opposite.

I was amazed to realize that the sentiments included in the Litany of Penance so closely echoed untutored words I have whispered into my own soul. The language, that I know a younger, more recalcitrant version of myself would have found debasing, felt necessarily humble and honest. The professed admissions of failings and the hunger for reconciliation at first seemed too heavy a cross to bear, but then I realized that I force myself through such rigorous self examination all the time. And I am much less forgiving of my own sins than God promises to be…

Yes, it all made sense, and the prayers rang true.  Enough of me was at home there.

dsc00383But still, a portion of me observed from outside this house of Christ. That part of me stood rooted into the earth and felt the rain fall upon my face and trusted the sun would come out to dry me in time. I was able to love everything marks this first day of Lent because I know I am welcome in that building, but am comforted to know I can still step away in order to speak the language of a Yoga Sutra or an Arabic mantra.

Other faiths’ houses of worship do not offer the organic comfort that the Catholicism of my heritage does, but their traditions still offer sweet succor for the soul. Sitting in the warm embrace of Christ I was able to understand that every moment is sweeter when I can embrace all spiritual possibilities. Churches, mosques, and temples – they are a collection of neighbors’ homes planted in a circle on God’s beautiful green earth.

Worshipping at the Sacred Well

I really, really love water.

A good supply of fresh water is what anyone would want if stranded on a desert island. I would put water, and my ever-present SIGG bottle, at the very top of my list for purely emotional reasons.

dsc01624I know that the constant need to carry a flask of H2O is an addiction of my entire generation, but I know I only thrive when I’m secure if I have a source of hydration at my fingertips. At this point, I am pretty certain it’s not indicative of any physical malady. It’s just one of my social crutches – kind of like how I can only speak coherently at a meeting if I have a pen in my hand.

Both because I fill my bottle so often and because the filter is a little slow, I tend to spend a lot of time standing in front of our fancy new refrigerator. When my sister remarked upon how long it took to fill glass when she was visiting on Thanksgiving I told her I usually use the time to consider my posture and say a few Hail Marys.

She looked at me like I was insane (I know I’ve mentioned plenty of time that prayers to the BVM have not generally been part of my repertoire) and declared that she’d spend the time doing calf raises.

In the three months since the whole family gathered here for turkey and feasting I have logged in a lot more time in front of the great stainless steel font. It struck me this morning, as I launched into the fifth “blessed art thou amongst women…” that a lot of concentrated, spiritual attention was focused on that section of kitchen tile. So many books on meditation recommend setting aside a specific place to further empower one’s daily practice. Short of my actual altar, I spent more time talking to God in front of the fridge than I do anywhere else in the house.

photo Mario Corrigan, www.kildare.ie
photo Mario Corrigan, http://www.kildare.ie

Then it occurred to me that prayer has always been centered around sacred springs. Brigid’s Well in Kildare remains one of my favorite places in Ireland. There was most certainly a deep and abiding power there. That power came from generations of prayer as well as from the holy nature of water itself.

There are streams near the house, bodies of flowing life that so inspire me on these thawing days when the hush of spring is in the air. So rarely do I remember that the same water flows from our own humbly red-capped well and fills my cup. It’s that sense of disconnection that is so easy to get trapped in when eggs come from cardboard cartons and chickens are born covered in plastic wrap. Sweet, fresh water comes from the belly of the earth, not from an unending labyrinth of pipes.

And then I realize that I may not be moved to talk to Mary just because I am trying to be more conscious of the divine and because its a good way to kill time. It may be that a part of me I barely recognize is trying to get connected. I am giving thanks for precious water because something deep in my ancestral core knows that to worship at a well is to see the face of God.

A Sacred Way of Acknowledging Each Other

‘The way you bowed to each other. Every time he handed you something, or you handed something back to him. I know that was part of the Church ritual, too, but I was lying awake last night think about it in a different way. I was thinking, maybe couples ought to have little rituals like that, where they bow to each other. Maybe once at the beginning of the day and once at the end. Maybe at other times, too. As a way of acknowledging each other – oh, I don’t know, that there really is a sacred aspect of what they’re trying to do with each other.’

Gail Godwin, Evensong

dsc00116This novel, the continuing story of a preacher’s daughter who becomes an Anglican priest herself and marries another man of the cloth, offers this comment by a character who watches the couple offering a mass together.

What should be more sacred than the bond one has the partner she has chosen for life? What other relationship or situation should lend itself to the creation of ritual in such a way?

Except most of us are not married or devoted to a fellow member of the clergy. For most of us, faith is not both vocation and avocation. I have always found that balance in which both partners share the same sort of passion for the Divine to be more than elusive.

big_loveRight now, my husband I am more than a little obsessed with Big Love, the incredibly well done HBO show about a “mainstream” polygamous family. Theoretically, their shared faith is so fervent and irresistible that it inspires them to walk against the tides of law and society. (Of course, if it were that simple the show wouldn’t be so addictive and compelling…)

I operate outside of the bounds of a specific religion, as does my husband. He knew that “spirituality” was important to me when we first met, and I knew that he was cool with that. Over the years my sort of amorphous pining for the Goddess has taken more deliberate shape and we have had more conversations about the role of a Higher Power, but in certain ways, the arrangement is still the same. My own journey has progressed and my Love is always there by the side of any road I choose to travel.

Because I have never committed my adult life to a specific religious, where I assumed it is much easier to find a like minded soul who is interested in approaching God in a similar way, I have sort of resigned myself to a rather solitary path marked by my partner’s interest, but not necessarily his participation. There are so many other things that I get from our marriage. Plus, it makes sense to me that I am engaged in an individual relationship with Spirit.

But this section from Godwin’s novel offers a couple an alternative to some formal, or even informal, worship of God.

Modern books on the Goddess and feminine spirituality so often seem to offer a chapter or two on sacred love making and blessing one’s union. They always seemed like the dreams of women whose lovers would always hold their witchy dabbling at arms length. In the same way, books on Eastern paths that talk about Tantra as the ultimate union between male and female (with little answer for same sex couples) as some distant ideal crafted by the sorts of people I could never imagine my husband and I to be.

But it could be made more simple, to keep it within a place of safety and comfort for all involved. What would it be to simply acknowledge the other, to take it above the sweet, but perhaps mundane level of making dinner breakfast together and cuddling on the couch for another few episodes of a mutually enjoyed tv show?

There is something delicious and necessary about finding the sacred in the every day. But isn’t there a way to plant the sacred in that every day experience so we do not have to overturn so many humdrum stones to find it?

But it can be a great bridge to cross – allowing one’s private passion for God to permeate a relationship in more overt ways (a true spirituality will always be inflecting a relationship in beautifully subtle ways). Perhaps on this day that has been forced to represent love by countless flower shops and candy companies there is room to introduce the equivalent of a sacred bow to recognize the wonder of love’s power.

How will you do it?

Moonlight and Roadkill and Making Peace with the Past

imageafter, everystockfile.com
imageafter, everystockfile.com

There was a time when my spiritual life was anchored by two things: the moon and animals that had been killed by oncoming traffic.

Seeing a white crescent hanging in a blue sky would bring an unaccustomed smile to a face that was creased with worry over a life I could not figure out how to live. I’d whisper “Hi, Lady” and feel the glint of some divine power in what I considered a very bleak existence.

Catching sight of a crumpled, furry corpse would make me shiver in the way you might expect, but it also offered me my only experience of prayer. Again in a whisper I would say, “I commend your soul to the Goddess.” I’d drive on, convinced, at least for a few moments that a great, compassionate Being watched over us all, especially her most defenseless creatures.

I was in a relationship that dissolved my sense of self and power and I was working in a job that truly soul destroying experience. (If ever I weary of an idyllic college library, I need to remember the gigantic orthopedic surgeons’ office in a high rise; I’ve never met people so miserable as the female secretaries of all those male doctors.)

dsc01228My boyfriend, whom I thought I had to love beyond all sense and reason, was a great guy – but just not for me. For all that he could not understand or reach me, he did have his own stores of wisdom as he tried to create a life with the very depressed woman who shared his home. I remember him saying that he wished I had a cat to come home to so that I could be able to look forward to coming home each night to a creature who loved me (he worked nights, so he was apparently looking for a four legged substitute for himself). As much as I yearned for a pet, I know I despised him a little for that comment and for leaving me alone so much that I needed to find friendship at the ASPCA.

Of course, looking back I salute him for being so right.

Each day I awake to count my blessings. A man I love with all the right mix of sensibleness and unreasonableness and everything in between. A pair of cats who greet me at the door and make me laugh every day and warm the bed each night. A clear, open sky full of the moon and the open eyes to see her. An awareness of the Divine in all things, not just departed squirrels and waxing celestial bodies.

I bask in the empathetic gaze of animal friends as well as the awesome, changing power of the moon and understand that hopelessness is a habit long outgrown.

img_2040And still, recognizing that I still greet the Lady when I see a smudge of white on the morning horizon or repeat a prayer over every departed animal, just as I did when my life was at its worst, reminds me that there is worth in every moment of life, even when it feels wasted and pointless. Back then, despite the thick fog of despair that was my twenty-third year of life, a connection to my true self still blazed forth.

I have never felt so distanced from that chain-smoking girl as I do now, but I must respect and remember that poor lost girl. She helped to create the woman I love to be today.

I honor the person I no longer have to be. She is every bit a part of me, just as the phases of the moon and a connection to animal life is a part of my every day.

Recognizing that even when life seems to be at its maddest, there is still a connection to true self. I feel so much closer to that and ususally laugh off my past as an unrecogniable dark period, but in fact, that woman created who i am now. Honoring her, just as I honor the moon and the animals who lost their battle with oncoming cars.