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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Can Somebody Please Get This Man a Priest?

My husband almost refused to sit with me to watch the movie we’d Netflixed last night. It wasn’t so much that he feared the dreaded “chick flick” (I am blessed with a man who wears his heart on his sleeve just enough to find his way through such films with no problem), it was just that he jokingly refused to watch me swoon over two of the tastiest men in movies – Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell.

cassandras_dream_1Cassandra’s Dream wasn’t exactly a great film, nor was it particularly uplifting. The men were pretty, but that didn’t really counterbalance the claustrophobic feel of the movie. I suppose the film was effective in that I was squirming along with the characters at the nearly impossible situations they created for themselves through greed and misplaced loyalties and a refusal to heed their own morals or instincts.

Basically, two brothers from London agree to murder a man who threatens their uncle’s reputation and fortune. Colin Farrell plays the brother crippled by conscience, the one who turns to drink and drugs to numb the pain, all to no avail. He is coming apart at the seams. His fragility threatens the entire wicked scheme.

In spite of myself, I wanted these guys to get away with their crime, but at the same time, I wanted Farrell’s character to do the impossible, to become whole again.

The only answer I could come up with, as we watched the story unfold on our comfortable couch bathed in the glow of the Christmas tree, was that this guy needed to find a priest. The only thing I could think of that might make his soul clean again was some time in a confession booth and as many Acts of Contrition and Hail Marys as he could muster.

I have mentioned previously that I dance with my Catholic heritage, holding dear to the pieces that speak to me directly – my own vision of Mary, the mystics, the commitment to service – and yet, I definitely shy away from other aspects – Original Sin, patriarchy, the idea that it is the “One True Faith.”

Still, Catholicism seems to flow in my blood as surely as the prayers have been etched into my brain.

createsimaEven when I was furthest from my Christian roots, when I had run out of options, I found myself beseeching Jesus that I would do whatever he might ask, if only he could get me out of the mess I had made. I was twenty years old, alone in a Galway dorm room, trying to live through a case of alcohol poisoning so intense I would have been in an American emergency room in a heartbeat. A man I had been foolish enough to love decided to break my heart only after he had bought me one of everything they had behind the bar. Young, stupid, and scared out of my mind, I clung to my pillow and just repeated the Lord’s Prayer as my body shook and my head swam.

Far from my finest hour, and certainly one that I must cherish as a lesson and a warning. Only years later, when I have made my peace with Christianity, can I look back to that moment and understand the depths of my belief in the power of heavenly salvation and aid. It is definitely not something that springs from an intellectual place within me. It is from a visceral place, a spiritual place beyond words that makes me understand why people need faith and a religion upon which to hang those convictions.

What would a priest do for a guy who had committed such a horrific sin? My mind says, not much. My soul seems to think that he might be able to do something more.

I still pursue a path guided by the wisdom of many traditions, but it seems that when things are really dire my survival instinct takes me back to what I learned first.

Our Father, who art in Heaven…

Frugality Is Not a Crime

German chapel ornament

When you have to do it, belt-tightening’s no joke. But, gladly, most Americans don’t have to — not even in this economy. […]

If you’re blessed with good fortune in these hard times, you’re not helping anyone if you let frugality chic stop you and yours from having a very Merry Christmas indeed.

I nearly choked on my soy milk when I heard this commentary on Marketplace this morning. It’s yet another story about how resisting the urge to spend as much as possible this Christmas makes you worse than Scrooge – it makes you the scourge of capitalism and the American way of life.

I make no claims about having much knowledge of the economy. Nearly all of my news comes from NPR, and I know that’s not like being a daily reader of the Wall Street Journal. Maybe the commentator, Will Wilkinson, is exactly right and austerity is one of the factors that makes an already shaky economy begin to look even worse.

My issue is not with this interpretation of the the law of supply and demand, it is that we are stuck in a system that can only be salvaged if we acquire more stuff.

Wasn’t it greed that got us into this problem in the first place? How can buying more Gap sweaters in bizarre colors just because they are on sale and your sweetie should have a few more boxes to open make the world any more livable?

Change is a scary thing. Realizing that the global economic structures are being turned upside down and may never look the same again is frightening. Trying to imagine what might come after U.S. domination seems unfathomable for most of us in these fifty states.

Clinging to the very structures that have been proven to betray us is not helping matters. Continuing to shop like everything is normal isn’t the soothing balm the ad campaigns and the radio experts are trying to convince us it is.

detail of our treeWhat if we are choosing to buy less and handcraft more? What if it just makes sense to give to charity instead of purchase a book that your uncle will never give himself time to read? What if this down economy, even if you are yet unscathed, is just the reason you were looking for to ditch materialism and show your family you love them by giving them less clutter, not more?

I cannot believe that this financial crisis is just a fluke of the markets. With all of the internal shifts that are forcing people to look at their lives in entirely new ways, we need our relationship with money and consumerism to be transformed as well.

Our souls need room to breathe. Wouldn’t there be a lot more time to figure out how to do that if we spent less time in the mall and less time dusting our new trinkets?

Our earth needs room to breathe. Won’t easing the yearly December burden of delivery trucks and crowded landfills and depleted resources be the greatest gift you could give to your Mother this holiday?

A Tricky Word: Extraordinary

library ceiling

We’re going to be extraordinary

Seven years ago I sat in a college theater watching a friends’ production of Wendy Wasserstein’s Uncommon Women and Others and this line, like a well aimed arrow, got lodged in my heart.

I carried around the burden of this drive to be extraordinary like a sick woman bears a prognosis that she has six months to live.

Contentment scared me because I equated it with settling for my still imperfect life. The experience of the ins and outs of daily existence made me feel like I was stuck in one big waiting room praying I would soon be released into the next stretch of life where things really counted.

Always on the run from the mundane, I chased after at ever elusive hopes that magic and transformation would find me even as I raced around in a panic. There was no chance that I could ever find peace in meditation – all about embracing the present moment – because I was convinced that the present moment was just a big, fat, ugly reminder of all that I had failed to do.

It was a well meaning sort of madness, since all I really wanted was to lead a “worthwhile life,” but it was a destructive madness all the same. Essentially, I was convinced that unless I totally revised my uninspired every day life, I would end up a dissatisfied fifty year old, regretting my lost youth and unused potential.

Then one day I realized I was comfortable in my own skin.

Ok, it’s not a complete transformation, I definitely admit. I still get cranky about work sometimes and I fret that I will not see my name on the spine of a book by age thirty and I panic that there are not enough hours in the day to be a writer and healer and a wife and a professional and someone who actually SLEEPS, but I’ve stopped rushing to some undefined place of “achievement.” I know this feeling has been creeping up slowly, but I feel like I just woke up a few days ago and realized: I AM leading a worthwhile life.

Learning that to heal someone is to facilitate her awakening definitely lead to this epiphany. That definition finally lead me to accept what we have heard so many times – to change the world, help bring change to one other person.

The other thing that made me realize I actually can be the change I wish to see without changing everything was watching my teacher and my healer in action. These women may get to be well known someday, but for now, they are effecting amazing transformations in the worlds they directly touch each day. They wish to get their ability to heal and their message of possibility out there, but they are not driven by a need for recognition or because they believe that what they have is not enough.

I am still striving to make what improvements I can, but I think I am finally doing it from a place of fullness rather than a place of fear that I might not be enough. It seems this is the only way to really reap what we sow. Who knew that the best way to move forward was not to project yourself into an always distant future but to be happy standing still for a moment?

Graffiti Philosophy: Everything Will Be Alright

Everything will be alright”

This phrase is written in tiny letters on the bathroom wall at work. Assuming that the staff has not taken to expressing themselves through gentle vandalism, I can only guess that a student plagued by looming deadlines or a broken heart that might never mend took it upon herself to share her affirmation with the rest of the world.

I cannot help that smile that I am lucky enough to work at a liberal arts college library where the graffiti is dedicated to such sweet, pure wisdom. It is one more thing that helps put into perspective the world of work in times like these.

Heart in the drive

For all that I loved the scholarly life when I was in school, all the emotional turmoil that sprang from too many hormones and too much beer and too little sleep and too few quiet moments are still vivid. I would never discount whatever drove that student to express herself in that hastily scribbled line, but I cannot help but think of those of us who already have our diplomas and who live in the “real world.” What do we think when we read “everything will be alright” each day?

This phrase hold special significance to me because it makes me hear Stephen Cope‘s voice every time. This aptly named author a few great books on yoga employs this phrase often (though to be exact, I think he says “everything will be OK”). He uses it to bring the scattered “puppy mind” back to stillness, to stop that constant monologue spurred by fear and regret that plays constantly in our heads. It isn’t Sanskrit, it isn’t much of a mantra, but what else do you really need when you are looking to create a moment of peace for yourself in the midst of chaos?

“Everything will be alright” is such a simple phrase, almost trite and probably over used, but why complicate things? Julian of Norwich gave us “all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.” Her line is little more like fine wine when it rolls off the tongue, but it is the same idea. We can wrap it around ourselves even when things seem to be at their darkest.

If the bedrock of capitalism starts to shift and a sanctuary like an elite college begins to feel the tremors when the greedy beast of our economy stumbles under the weight of its own foolish gluttony, is “everything will be alright” going to be enough?

If jobs are endangered and mortgage payments start to loom too large are those four little words going to protect us?

I think my answer to that is: they will have to.

We have always lived in an uncertain world, for all that it was not so obvious until this latest rash of bad news. It seems likely that all of our spiritual practices and all of our work to be centered and whole will be tested in new and powerful ways. I know I worry that my lovely little coping mechanisms might fail in those moments when “real life” in all of its insistent ugliness comes to call.

Again, I think there’s a simple answer: make sure those coping mechanisms are more than idle strategies you play with when life is smooth. Find a way to love yourself enough that you can gather your power and hone your strength and begin to truly believe, come what may, every little thing is gonna be alright.

Hope In the Glare of Oncoming Headlights

Driving home from work last night I was listening to NPR, as usual. As All Things Considered drew to a close, they offered a commentary by a Steve Bouser about a turtle who perished in an ill considered bid to cross four lanes of traffic.

At the end of this momentous week, I was expecting inspiring homages to how much America had grown and how we all had been a part of history (well, at least the 52.3% who voted for Obama). Instead, here was a guy describing the cruel but banal death of a tortoise. He extended his metaphor to the madness of human “progress” that so often happens at the expense of other species and he closed with:

Turtles have been around for 200 million years, since before there were dinosaurs. And I’ll bet they’ll still be plodding on their way long after we humans have progressed to what sometimes seems a well-deserved extinction.

What? We take a bold step our of fear into a new vision of hope and we end up with the consolation of reptilian road kill and our inevitable, self-constructed doom?

Actually, there are times I agree with this rather dim view of the human endeavor. If we continue to pave over paradise and choke the air with the byproducts of our easy credit lifestyles, then a planet that refuses to support mammalian life might be just punishment.

How’s that for hope? I recognize that this intense frustration with the oblivious hedonism and narcissism of the developed world does not exactly harmonize with the spirited optimism I often share in this space. Both are vital aspects of who I am, however, and I think it is just this dissatisfaction with much of the world that drives me to write and to project whatever positive energy I can scratch together at the end of each day.

I think this NPR commentator and I are coming from a similar place, as much as I might refuse to end any of my own pieces with such a damning last sentence. He did try to save the poor little creature and is undoubtedly sharing his reflections in order to make others think about our relentless war with nature. There are enough of us who recognize that we are wreaking havoc on the globe that we must speak up and act to change it all.

Focusing on my immediate reaction to this story, I was paying little attention to the the winding road ahead of me. A black and white cat appeared, illuminated by the relentless glow of my approaching headlights. She stopped and I swear our eyes locked for a fraction of a moment. I screamed, thinking of a series of childhood cats who looked so much like her, all of whom had probably met the same fate on a dark road on a cold night.

This feline’s story would not end like the turtle’s, however. She would scamper into the bushes and my heartbeat would slow and at least one four legged creature would prove wilier than a four wheeled machine. And so I will interpret her escape as that ray of hope, that belief that there is still time to dodge the oncoming traffic of our own undoing.

Activism and Service, Fear and Necessity

Yesterday’s post about a renewed perspective on suffering that was illuminated during my yoga practice was a late night piece of writing about an issue that I usually push to the darker parts of my mind. It could have been four times longer and still would not have begun to encapsulate my thoughts on the tension between tending to the garden of one’s own soul and looking beyond one’s fences in hopes of effecting change in this troubled world.

The beautiful BlissChick spoke to some of the very issues that have me feeling so conflicted. I mentioned a speech that Bono gave to call attention to the neediest people in Africa, but I did not offer the usual caveats. I didn’t say I was taking with a grain of salt an address by a zillionaire superstar in love with the sound of his own voice who should clean up the streets of Dublin and downgrade his own jet fueled lifestyle. I let his wisdom stand and simply appreciated that a guy in orange sunglasses who may or may not have been wearing leather pants made me think. I spoke only of my recognition of destitution half a world away without offering myself, and perhaps my readers, the consolation of “thinking globally, act locally” with a strong emphasis on the local, be that defined as inside your own head or your own neighborhood. I let my heart bleed for the people of a distant continent without the qualifications that keep their poverty far enough away for comfort.

It is as if I am in a state of almost perpetual frustration when I stop looking into my own third eye and start seeing the man pushing a shopping cart full of his possessions through the streets of Poughkeepsie and when I let myself read about AIDS orphans. Of course, I am often trapped in a similar state of frustration when I am letting the world fall away and am diving deep within myself. The discontent I have with the state of the world is more than mirrored buy the unquiet nature of my own soul.

I thank BlissChick for sharing her experience with making a difference at a local level, and reminding me of its importance. Thing is, I have yet to be successful at finding a way to reach into the community to make that sort of a difference. There are always so many excuses: the lack of time I currently have for creative projects and soul work, family commitments, a phobia of those large busted, overly-efficient women in charge at soup kitchens who you to scrub pots with a worthless sponge even though your blouse is dry clean only (I admit, I have an inner princess who is a bit of a scaredy-cat in such situations). There is an unnameable fear that must be a sign of something unresolved in myself. And that gives me two options: continue to stay at home and work on this elusive issue or just face that fear and watch it evaporate under the light that’s generated when I help someone else.

I found what Bono had to say compelling because he freely admitted that America has its own troubles and that we could gain much by focusing our activism and resources here at home. When we are already awake to crisis, however, why not also challenge ourselves to look a little further? He said:

When America looks outside of itself, its view of itself is never clearer. Its faith in itself is never firmer. Its purpose is never stronger.

As vital as it is to work deeply on our psyches and our souls, we are also at risk of falling to narcissism and protectionism both on the individual and national scale. I can translate Bono’s rallying call into doing something as little as writing a letter to Congress on behalf of the people of Africa, but I can go further and move outside of myself and finally show up to help at that battered women’s shelter.

All of these points do not add up to a cohesive thesis, but they reveal that this inner work I am doing needs to be accompanied by a willingness to move outside of myself. I need to break the barriers I have created that were formed of a belief that my prosperity is so fragile it might shatter in the face of another’s need. I must realize that I am a hell of a lot stronger than I let myself believe, and I have to think America might just be a whole hell of a lot stronger than we are letting on.

(Heady stuff, this, but I was able to stop in the middle of this harangue because this song came on. It always reminds me of my Nanna and tells me that no matter what happens, she’s always looking over my shoulder. “The world has lost her way again, but you are here with me…”)