Saint Anthony’s Priorities

Rustling through my closet, both trying to organize things and avoid the chores in the kitchen in advance of the beautiful family invasion due in on Thursday, I marveled at the odd assortment of life’s detritus that has traveled with me. Expired student IDs from Galway, Halloween greeting cards, cryptic notes from my grandfather that were once attached to long forgotten newspaper clippings about libraries or the Hudson Valley. Memories, lovely and otherwise, enmeshed in it all.

I’ve made the prayer to Saint Anthony my new mantra as I casually riffle through closets too new to have dark, concealing corners. That August morning we move in I know I made sure I put my hands on my grandmother’s jewelry. Now, the nice flat white box is somewhere quite safe, I’m sure. If we leave the house unlocked no thieves with a penchant for houses on winding country roads will be able to find this stuff. Of course, neither will I…

At any rate, I am a new but fervent believer in what seems like little more than a children’s nursery rhyme “Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony, please come around. Something is lost that cannot be found.” I just love the way the reciter abdicates all responsibility for losing the treasured object in question and sort of indicates that a certain something wandered off like a naughty child on a busy train platform.

Once I lost a handwritten letter my grandfather had sent while he was on an Ignatian retreat. It was one of those letters that seem to have been written in a mythical bygone age when one could pour out his soul in scrawling script and theological discussions were the topic of the day. Foolishly tucked in a paperback, it vanished during a lunch hour I spent walking across most of campus. (Please note, I did not lose said missive, it obviously jumped from its place.) Two days later after ransacking house and car and office, I chanced a trip to the College lost and found. When the girl at the desk said, “oh, this letter?” I began to weep and blubber with gratitude and became more than convinced that only a being with some seriously divine status could have inspired someone to save this gem from the ubiquitous recycling bins and send it on its way back to me.

It seems that Saint Anthony sometimes makes his own decisions about what needs to be found, however. Tonight, in this box of mementos and junk I found two things that I never would have realized I needed to find: a rose quartz heart and a bit of tortured poetry.

I had received the heart at a ritual years ago and given it to my Nanna when she was battling cancer. Funny how my buddy Tony seems to think that I need to find the guidance of my other grandmother right now – not the one with the jewels, but the one whose heart I knew the best. I am thinking that Nanna is trying to tell me that I need to pass this stone on to my sister as she tries to heal her own heart from the loss of yet another loved one to that wicked, voracious disease.

The lines of poetry are written in blue ink on an index card, and I can only guess that I scribbled them down while sitting at a job that seem bent on destroying me, body and soul. One good thing about a job as a medical receptionist before everyone had internet on their office computers: I would spit language onto scrap paper rather than numb my addled brain with gossip sites and Daily Show clips. I cannot say much for the quality of the little rant, but it amazes me how much my life has changed in the last six years yet how some things have become so much more true than a lost twenty-three year old could have ever imagined.

—–
Spools of integrated soul
aching for reprieve, expression, air
[…]
Buried in verse, believing in my own mountaintop
even as I am entombed in these feet of clay
—–

I know I was given that crystal for a reason, so I think I must set about why I was sent a telegram from this younger voice of my soul…

Oh, and Saint Anthony, thanks for also helping me find something to write about tonight (the writer’s block had been killing me all evening!).


A Simple Yearning for Home

Julia Cumes - birdsToday I am wearing my red shoes.

I spent yesterday in a fog as thick as one might see on a spring morning over the Vineyard Sound. My weekend back on Cape Cod hung around me like a shroud – a thick blanket of memories that warmed me even as it muffled the world around me. I couldn’t find joy in the days at home with my family for all that I felt compelled to mourn being away.

Last evening I went to visit the woman I can only describe as my “healer” – a small, undervalued term to describe someone who has helped me immeasurably and who does amazing work with energy that I am just beginning to understand. I spun her a few tales about my fears of leaping out of a settled job and the feeling of urgency to start acting to change the world on a piece of land that I love so well and several other theories about why I felt so off balance in the face of making this theoretical move. That’s when she laughingly and forcefully informed me that all of these intellectual reasons for why it might be hard to go back to the Cape even though it seemed to be the right thing to do in many ways was, frankly, bullshit.

“You want to go home. It’s as simple as that.”

And she is right, that is what I want, and this new existential dilemma is rooted only in the basic yearning for something so simple that I can barely credit it. I am meant to be a complex, cerebral creature who is ready to adventure across the world and send back post cards to mom and dad, not be the one down the street who drops by for tea on a random Tuesday afternoon! The place I came from – the ocean that perfumes it, the winds that buffet it, the tourist traffic that plagues it – finally that arm of sand is making itself known as integral part of myself, an essential, elementary force in my life.

When I stop spinning through the little dramas I have concocted around how difficult it will be to color outside the lines and construct a life somewhere with a reputation for expensive homes and few “good” jobs, I will realize the problem with my desire to be back where I began is not about the logistics of modern existence. It is about understanding simplicity and the recognition of the power of home and a voice deep inside of me that says “I want.”

The problem with dipping into too many spiritual texts and self-help books is that you are often left with any number of conflicting pieces of wisdom and nonsense. With the little I know of Buddhism, I can reject such wanting as too much attachment. But then, how many books are written to help empower the individual to cast a dream into the contrary winds of life and dare to chase it.

I will surely be grappling with the spiritual ramifications of want for some time, but for now I am comforted (if still more than a little surprised) by the sweetness of declaring I am more like Dorothy Gale than I ever imagined.

Kansas, Cape Cod, whatever. I am on my way.

The Revolution of Compassion and Other Impossible Feats

Visiting my parents this weekend, I was greeted by a black lab who couldn’t contain her joy, Mom’s cooking, and a pile of junk mail from the various progressive organizations that will continue to have my childhood address on file until I retire. Eyes half open after the late night four hour drive from New York to the Cape, I flipped through the envelopes from NOW and Ms. Magazine and the Sierra Club. There was a small promotional booklet from The Sun, a magazine to which I had once subscribed with the best of intentions (I think there is a small unread stack in a closet somewhere).

The first thing I read was an excerpt of an interview with a fellow by the last name of Edwards in which he said:

“It’s not enough to just sit there and have compassionate thoughts. Your compassionate thoughts need to be reflected in what you do. How can you aspire to compassion and yet work for an arms manufacturer? You need to help other people. […] Once you start to see through the myth of status, possessions, and unlimited consumption as a path to happiness, you’ll find that you have all kinds of freedom and time. It’s like a deal you can make with the universe: I’ll give up greed for freedom. Then you can start putting your time to good use.”

As I said, I was exhausted and we had been listening to campaign coverage for most of the ride. I got into bed wondering why I never realized that John Edwards was such an amazing person, not just some guy who seemed to mention being the son of a mill worker more often than was necessarily interesting or sincere. The next morning, I was ready to read my mother this quote and tell her that we must have really missed something when it came to this man’s campaign. I was ready to bemoan the fact our country was just too taken with special interests and big money politics. I was ready to think that “Yes we can!” was an empty slogan compared to someone who talked about finding freedom through renouncing greed.

Before I started a rumor that virtue was still valued over power somewhere on the national scene, I realized this interview was with a guy named David Edwards. The passage was from a June 2000 interview with a British writer who had walked away from his corporate destiny and began to dedicate himself to “spreading ideas that challenge our culture’s destructive illusions.” Please do check out the piece – I think he just blew my mind a little, but it will take a a little time to let those ideas (all of which I had probably heard before) fall into the shape of an epiphany.

Am I suffering the pangs of cruel disillusionment when I realize that the words above really probably could not come from the mouth of an individual as firmly entrenched in the political machine as an American presidential candidate? Does it just figure that something I found so simple, true, and insightful comes from a man thought mad because he gave up so many of the accustomed Western privileges and luxuries? Am I saddened that countless people whom I love would shake their heads at my quaint, bleeding heart liberal, idealism should I bring one of his books along on vacation?

It is just becoming alarmingly clear that the sort of vision that appeals to me, that seems the only correct, possible way to be a human being in the 21st century is neither easy nor popular. It scares me to realize that I might be ready to accept that challenge. Almost as much as it scares me that I will not.

Accepting the Risk of Contentment

Wedding skyI am trying to decide whether there is tragedy in the discovery that contentment breeds silence. Granted, as the pieces of my life seem poised to draw together into a shining collective marked by peace and possibility, I feel largely protected from tragedy. The bits of me tinged with superstition and fear wonder when I will be cursed for such blithe naivety, such hubris, but in reality, I just feel incredibly fortunate to be walking through life with eyes opened wide enough to realize when I am moving through a blessed stretch of my journey. Caroline Myss was the first person I ever heard to use the phrase “field of grace”; I think I know what it is to have my star enter such a space.

We didn’t win the lottery. I didn’t lay a spread of tarot cards that predicted nothing but prosperity. My husband didn’t tell me I could forget about the money and quit my day job. I was not told that life would become any simpler or less full of questions.

After months of scurrying after fate, dreaming that the Divine would set my future ablaze next (sort of like really, really, really hoping you would get picked for the kickball team), it just seems that I have found an end to all of the franticness that has marked so much of my life. It seems time that I learn the difference between stagnation and stability, between laziness and contentment.

James Martin, SJ paraphrases Mother Teresa’s pronouncement that “you should find her own Calcutta” with the familiar “bloom where you are planted.” He suggests that you “discover sanctity in your own life.” We have decided to embrace that idea, but only after a roundabout interrogation of what seemed like every option, not (I hope) because we fear challenging the status quo or because it seemed easy to adopt a nice little line from a supportive priest. Suddenly, living in this beautiful valley full of progressive thinkers and going to work every day in a place that sets galaxies of information at my fingertips seems like the fruit of a sweetly conspiring universe rather than the consequences of a few unrelated accidents.

When the tide turns, as it invariably will, and we seem to be taking less advantage of this time of comfort (declared now to be a couple of years marked by conscious growth in a familiar world), I may blush at this sweet faced optimism. Perhaps the fear that I will sound foolish to the eventual jaded self that will read these words with derision keeps us from wanting to express hope and happiness. Somehow drowning in confusion and complaint is easier; there are so many more dramatic ways to describe misery than pain (isn’t that why modern fiction robs us of happy endings so often these days?). Or perhaps the truth of contentment is to be found in the stillness it begets, the ability to cease the need transmit an emote and simply be.

A Path to Someplace

The seaweed fingers of the ocean laced themselves through Friday night’s post as I dreamed of a Cape Cod childhood. The specter of all I didn’t really appreciate living with the ocean so near to my door sweeps ever closer as I delve into the essence of place.

pathWe are steeped in the language of landscape – after all, this corner of the blogosphere is stated to include notes from a spiritual quest, and what is a quest if not a journey along a path? Only one part of me envisions a trail through a forest; the rest of me relies on the abstract – images of neural pathways or a trek up a spiritual mountain with little reference to reality. We have reached a point where we move through life without ever risking blisters as our feet never touch the ground. William Blake’s vision has been realized in so many ways: “Imagination is the real and eternal world of which this vegetable universe is but a faint shadow.”

So often in my life I have lived this creed, devouring poetry for the sway of the verse rather than to feel the rise of the hill being glorified on the page. We can discover countless aspects of the planet with such speed and alleged accuracy, but still I am left to wonder if I have ever actually seen a moose by the side of the road or if I have just watched the opening credits of Northern Exposure often enough to feel I have that big mammal all figured out.

At last I am beginning to realize that my moments of greatest unhappiness (often after heady flushes of joy) generally swallow me when I am most oblivious to the cycles of nature, the constant spin of birth and death that exists well beyond my narrow scope. It strikes me as strange that we can completely forget the ground beneath our feet. Does a sailor ever forget the ship that keeps him from slipping into the sea?

These considerations come at a time when my husband and I talking about where to set roots for an eventual family. Back to the Cape, back to Europe, some foolishly warm part of this country, or perhaps just embracing the community in which we currently find ourselves. There are so many factors that would inform that decision – occupation and livelihood; the proximity of family and friends; whether residents of these new places would seem to be “of our tribe”; is it too hot, too provincial, too landlocked? What would it mean to make the decision not only in light of such practicalities, but because of the pulse of a place, the language of the land itself rather than the vocabulary we have thrust upon it?

Finding My Fins at the Foot of a Mountain

http://www.flickr.com/photos/joebackward/I was born a Cape Cod girl with salt water in my veins (though I would not realize this until the ocean was no longer a mile from my door). I discovered my fairytale soul and soaked it in romance on Prince Edward Island (not recognizing until later the dangers of treating my teenage self with such painful earnestness). I became a Galway girl and parodied the Normans to be “more Irish than the Irish themselves” (not that I would have owned that dubious distinction at the time). As the shine of childhood and collegiate entitlement began to dull, I resigned myself to be someone caught between being a chameleon and a fish out of water and lived in a few landlocked spots that meant nothing to me at all. I have tried on more than a few guises and landscapes trying to find my own true home. Now, after nearly four years in a little town in the Hudson Valley at the foot of a ridge that leads to the Catskills I am beginning to realize aspects of myself beyond ocean and nation and alienation. At the same time, I am also able to recognize that the identity I forge is still built from the stuff of sand dunes and sea grass.

More and more I am coming across references to the essential nature of place and the way that location is an active participant in the events of one’s life. In so many ways this is a quaint notion that seems to apply to people who find joy in composting or who hail from a line of wisewomen and men stretching back to time immemorial. It is a luxury that seems to apply to people with large families in spots that are either too idyllic to leave or too destitute to escape. As I read about the vibrancy of some seem to see in their homeland I wonder at the privileged and the blighted few who enjoy such intimate knowledge of each stone and leaf.

Somehow in reading such texts I forget that I grew up with a list of my top five favorite beaches – one had the best waves, another the best sandbars, another the best rocks upon which to figure out the allure of sunbathing (this redhead has still to sort out that mystery of adulthood), etc. I was raised by people who chase across our peninsula on the three or four most perfect nights of the summer to see the sun set and the full moon rise on opposite sides of the sky over different faces of the sea. Just last weekend my mother and I rolled a busted buoy far further than might be considered sane to enhance a driftwood and debris sculpture and make part of that Chatham shoreline our own.

Woods Hole Research CenterI spent eighteen years on a world famous arm jutting into the Atlantic with parents who love to sail and collect heart shaped rocks and still don’t mind if the dog jumps into the water minutes before getting back into the car, and somehow I have managed to feel disconnected from an authentic sense of belonging, from a place that seemed to know my name as well as I knew its.

Now we can point to a global society riddled with modes of communication that has afforded us the ability to eat strawberries in February and play Scrabble with friends in Budapest in the middle of the night as the source of this separation from the land. This new parallel existence has also allowed us to trade organic “place” for self-determined “space” so that we get to define our world rather than letting it define us. I know that I gain infinite wealth from this wired world, just as I profit immeasurably from the first frontier that separated us from the earth around us, the printed page. At the same time, I am beginning to realize the reciprocal relationship that exists between me and the corner of the planet that gave birth to me as surely as my parents did. Nature is calling out to cradle us as sweetly and as strongly she always did, if only we are willing to listen.

The next mystery to sort out is how loudly the waves are calling me home…

A Sunday Drive Toward Reconciliation

This weekend my husband and I began the search for our first home. Dreams and make-believe were layered in with the grown up panic of 401K withdrawals and credit scores. We laughed and drank too much coffee and wound our way through the country lanes and modest neighborhoods that occasionally gave way to old orchards that now nurtured Hummers and McMansions. It was a day of escaping from ourselves completely even as we made plans that would structure the next phase of our lives.

In the same way that I lost track of all that I would normally consider essential while planning a wedding (a pedicure chosen over the time to cultivate some inner peace, etc.), I realize now that I am just as likely to lose sight of the ideals that cover these pages in the process of buying a house. In the same way that I am tempted to invest in traditional stocks whose profits are derived from guns (defense industry) and drugs (pill pushing, um, I mean medical innovation) and deforestation (development) rather than the “social choice” plans with low dividends and high feel-good points, I am guessing I will consider trading energy efficiency for a lower down payment.

The fact that life is a process of constantly balancing needs and wants, ideals and deals is well established. For me, I also recognize it as a perpetual act of reconciling my reality with the pictures I can paint of my perfect world in which environmentalism did not come at the cost of foregoing an extra bedroom and sound financial decisions were not based on taking every penny the bank would offer.

But then I remember the Sacrament of Reconciliation and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the act of reconciling invoices and payments. Penance and nation building and accounting all wrapped up in one word. I had to turn to my friends at Merriam-Webster:

Main Entry: rec·on·cile
Function: verb
Etymology: Middle English, from Middle French or Latin; Middle French reconcilier, from Latin reconciliare, from re- + conciliare to conciliate
1 a : to restore to friendship or harmony <reconciled the factions> b : SETTLE, RESOLVE <reconcile differences>
2 : to make consistent or congruous <reconcile an ideal with reality>
3 : to cause to submit to or accept something unpleasant <was reconciled to hardship>
4 a : to check (a financial account) against another for accuracy b : to account for
synonym see ADAPT

It is beginning to seem that “reconcile” in all of its forms is the constant thread binding my ostensibly disparate planes of existence. I reject the connotation of the term that links it to the need for an Act of Contrition, but if I can step back and realize it is possible to examine all that I am and have been in light of who I wish to be, it seems possible to escape the mantle of guilt (and that painful memory of my first penance at age seven when I was afraid to cross myself because the chocolate I had been clutching in my hand while waiting for the priest had melted through my fingers).

How strange to understand that a single verb can encompass both the restoration of friendship and harmony and the submission to the unpleasant, but is it such a leap to say that the search for harmony in the face of suffering is itself the process of living?