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?

Wise Woman Nurturing

Months ago, when I was trying to describe my vision of why the Girl Who Cried Epiphany had to rise from the virtual ashes, I tried to craft an title for my pursuit of wisdom and spiritual connection. I came up with Wise Woman Working because a wise, wise woman was just who I wanted to be.

Yet again, it was an Ani song that has been my soundtrack.dsc00871

it’s a long long road
it’s a big big world
we are wise wise women
we are giggling girls

Wise Woman Working. I loved the way “working” was such a multi-layered verb. It encompassed both the idea that I was an active creature, trying to get something done and also that I was like a piece of wood, being worked and crafted by my experiences.

The other day in a talk with my husband that covered the mysteries of marriage and the growing pains of personal and collective growth, I kept talking about the work that we had to put in. Usually it is my role to dole out the relationship maxims, but I know I am not the only source, especially when my love is the one to urge me to stop with all this talk of “work.” “Let’s talk about nurturing each other,” he said.

And so I look back, three months after my initial dance with all this Wise Woman Working and realize I need heed my own wise man. How does my vision shift if I think instead about Wise Woman Nurturing?

dsc00860Life is full of work and struggle, but true, respectful, and focused nurturing are all too rare.

This change in language helps me understand in one more way that I am not the only one in control. I cannot force my way to wisdom by putting in long hours and gritting my teeth really hard. I have to wait and coax and midwife this wisdom with all of the tenderness and honesty I can muster.

“The business of life.” “Working on a relationship.” “Spiritual exercises.”

I know I have used all of these phrases to show that I understand the rigors of conscious living. I want everyone to know that this stuff is hard and is worthy of all my efforts. Thing is, I am realizing that my work ethic is very rarely in question, in my spiritual life or anywhere else.

This delicate process of awakening so rarely requires elbow grease. What it does cry out for is sensitivity and creativity, patience and passion. Just like when a couple journeys through life-long love, when an individual walks the path to wisdom she needs to be nurtured. Neither wisdom nor love will be wrestled and forced into submission.

And so, like any good plan, mine is open for constant revision. For now, farewell working, hello nurturing.

Trusting the Abundance of the Feast

On this final Sunday of our winter retreat, this blissful stretch of days at home, I searched through the furthest reaches of the pantry for some “special tea.” I found a forgotten bag of loose chocolate mint roobois from our local tea room that I simply adore. I looked to my husband and remarked that he had bought this for me, once upon a time. He looked confused, “uh, must have been a long time ago.”

0172It was. Early in our courtship I would often go away on the weekends. Determined to prove my independence and let him know that I would be maintaining my own life, I resisted commitment every step of the way. I would return home to little gifts from a brilliantly persistent man intent upon taming a young redhead convinced she valued freedom over security, spontaneity over real love.

The morning’s tea was lovely, but not as nice as it might have been if I had enjoyed it back when it was first given to me as a token of a young romance. It was rich with memory, but it lacked the piquancy it once had when it was fresh.

This is not some oblique metaphor to say that my marriage has gone flat. Instead, it just sets me thinking about the odd ways we hoard our little treats, delaying our pleasures until we eventually we realized they have gone a little stale.

How many perfumes and lotions have you saved for special occasions only to find them in the back of the cabinet, their magic faded, their sweet essences separated into their uninspired base ingredients? How often has the treasured saffron turned into flavorless threads of crimson while you waited for that golden day you would create a paella your beloved ones would never forget? (Last night I threw my saffron saving self to last year’s hungry dogs and made this amazing North African chickpea and kale soup.)

This year, wisps of resolutions are coming to me in the form of little lessons, like when I sip my tea’s faded glory and when I generously toss spices into the mix.

Trust in abundance. Believe that you can enjoy what the Universe has given you. Be secure that what you need will come to you, even if you open your cupboards wide to share your bounty. Don’t hoard your own talents or your material treasures for a rainy day that will never come. Live in this moment. Allow your wings to spread to their fullest span.

Now, I am not celebrating the feckless grasshopper at the expense of the assiduous ant. I stand by the belief that frugality is not a crime. I am just talking about enjoying the simple luxuries you have and allowing them to make each day a little sweeter.

* * *

stars_texture_paint_227767_l
photo by: xllukins

Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Epiphany. The name of this blog was fueled only by a purely secular glory of revelation, and never even knew when the Epiphany was or what it really meant until last year.

And though I am growing more comfortable with Christianity in many ways, I realize that this feast does not necessarily speak to me directly, at least not the story itself does not. The appearance of the Wise Men, the giving of the gifts, heralding Christ’s birth to the gentiles. I think the weight of this story is finding me on a more subterranean level. The gift of tea seems to conjure frankincense, perhaps?

One symbol that does speak to me: following your star.

As a watcher of the skies and a dancer of the moon, I can hook myself to that great star that guided the Magi. For now it is leading me to epiphanies much more mundane that the birth of the savior, but it seems that it is all this sweetly contented moment in my life seems to require.

Deepened Connections, Deeper Love

In a post from this past Sunday, Christine at BlissChick gave us this line from Thomas Merton,

The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little.

Christine carries her readers through a consideration of all the ways that we are so overcome by Christ’s example. Because he was too compassionate, loving , tolerant, we immediately give up on following his examples and teachings. We are mere limited mortals; it’s no use to even attempt to be so virtuous as the Son of God.

dsc00920When I started to think about her post and this quotation, I took the idea in a direction I had been thinking about for a while: the ways in which we simultaneously overestimate and underestimate the strength of our bodies and our spirits. A few conversations I have had over the last few days bring me to look at Merton’s wisdom in a completely different light, however.

I’ve talked before about the realization that everyone carries around his or her own universe. If we are ready to recognize that everyone we meet is as complex and nuanced as ourselves with their own childhood hurts and age old karma, buried hurts and secret needs, then we have to reset the way we look at everyone who crosses our path. We don’t have to love everyone or pretend we approve of their actions. We just have to realize that the reasons and impulses that drive people’s behavior can be as numerous as the stars in the sky and that we are never going to comprehend the full extent of their “this is why.”

With that in mind, I look to Merton’s quote and think not of the baffling behavior of those we can keep at arm’s length. I am thinking about the ways that we relate to the people closest to our hearts, those we love the most whom we are supposed to understand the best.

In a number of unrelated situations, I have been offered a glimpse into some of deepest stories of my dearest companions. Suddenly bit of their characters fell into place when they described their choices and their fears that had previously been inexpressible. Not only do I think it was cathartic for them to talk through their perspectives, but I felt honored and blessed to be given the chance to understand them better.

How often do we settle for knowing too little of the interior worlds of those we love? How often do we just throw up our hands and say things like “I love him, but he is just impossible to get through to when it comes to X”? How often do we just choose to hear only what we expect them to say?

I am not saying that we should push our way into corners of others’ souls where we might not be welcome. I am instead suggesting that we walk into our relationships with hearts and minds open and ask ourselves if we are settling for too little of the brilliance and intricacy of our friends and family.

dsc01452We’ll never be able to take up residence in a brother’s body to really see the world the way he does, but why do we then quit trying to understand and pretend to be content with the stories that we’ve made up about his life? It is a slow and unpredictable process, this discovering the innermost alcoves of people we are supposed to know like the backs of our own hands, but it can only lead to deeper connections and truer recognition of the miracles they are.

We may find secret and unexpected places, but under the guidance of compassion and love, so few stones will be too scary to overturn.

There is certain wisdom in the recognition that we are not our stories (thanks Brandi!), but we cannot abandon someone who still needs our help with the untangling of the loose threads that mar the tapestry of her life.

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!).


Letting Creativity Simmer: Unlikely Kitchen Adventures

“If you can read, you can cook.”

My mother always said this whenever I would express any culinary trepidation. I’m not sure if it was disinterest or fear that kept me out of the kitchen, but I would usually nod my head and then disappear with a book, only turning up again when it was time to dress the salad.

Once my grandmother was about to prepare a turkey. She asked me, “Now, if you came home to this, what would you do?” I wasn’t trying to be funny when I replied, “Um, I’d put it back in the fridge.” My concerns about potential food poisoning far outshone my awareness that being involved in the process of cooking a turkey was an option I’d ever pursue.

Now I am married with a house of my own and I am fortunate enough to have a man around who has a way with poultry. I manage to produce a fair number of rather tasty meals (still avoiding having to touch raw meat whenever possible), but there is still a great divide between me and those who actually feel bliss at the other end of a spatula. For years, I had a picture of a redhead in a tiara with the caption “Domestically Disabled” prominently displayed on the refrigerator. A lot of the time, I still feel that way, but the diva excuse doesn’t cut it when you aspire to equality in a marriage and a home that you can be proud of.

To a certain degree, my mom is right: there is no reason to mystify the preparation of food. I have never been such an aloof artistic type that I had no interest in nourishing myself or setting a welcoming table for those I love. Still, it’s not always that easy: I am a pretty skilled reader, but it is amazing how, um, uniquely I can execute a recipe when I try to translate words into action.

There was the time we enjoyed a lovely gazpacho while I listed the five or six ingredients I had neglected to add, I don’t know how many dishes I have served only to exclaim “I forgot the spices!” And then there was last night when I got ready to prepare the fabulous Gluten Free Goddess‘s Mediterranean Chicken Soup (Husband kindly did his magic on the foul while I did the rest). How did I make a grocery list based on a recipe without ever noticing that it was supposed to take five to six HOURS in a crock pot? I wanted to have dinner ready by halftime – I was definitely not part of the slow cook movement. Luckily, though I have no idea how it was supposed to taste, it filled my woefully small soup pot and simmered little while and was actually wonderfully satisfying even on a condensed time line.

I share my culinary misadventures because it has helped me to realize that it is still possible to leave your comfort zone, veer off course dramatically, and still reap some rewards. For me, spending time at the stove is to dabble in someone else’s art, a territory that welcomes me only grudgingly and offers the rewards of a full belly rather than true self expression.

Still, last night was one of those times when I began to understand why those divinely inspired kitchen witches love to create with food. Mixing and tasting and knowing that I was just making it all up as I went along… There was a sense of connection to the vegetables and spices and wonder at the alchemy of making a meal for the person I love.

I may be a writer who reaches out to the world with language and thought, but it is sweetly liberating to learn that creative acts of any form are waiting for me to find them, urging me to look at the world anew.

Deciphering the Shape of My Heart

Reflecting on my day as I drove home tonight I thought about compassion fatigue, a phrase I was first introduced to while at a disappointing writing workshop that seemed less about language and more about the airing one’s pain. In this situation, the women and I who rebelled and decided to sit in the sun rather than listen to people recount their childhood horrors in prose (which were most probably valid, though such narratives had much more to do with therapy than with wordsmithery and we wished to discuss the latter) really could not stand any more tales of fathers who never told their daughters they were pretty. We excused ourselves by declaring that we had paid for another sort of week entirely and that we fielded quite enough suffering in our workaday lives.

Roofus - stock.xchngSince I am not actually a professional caregiver, I probably have very little claim to compassion fatigue in what seems to be an official sense (I cannot speak for this website as I just stumbled on it, but apparently people are putting a great deal of thought into the subject). At the same time, I think anyone who pays much mind to the news these days must suffer from at least form of this nebulous syndrome. There are of course two options: absorbing reality television that has absolutely nothing to do with reality but quite a bit to do with avarice and cruelty best left on the playground, and actually doing something about the darkness in the world.

Actually, I take that back, there are many choices that lay between being a couch potato and quitting one’s job to help rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward. I must imagine that there are countless people who, much like me, would consider themselves to be decent creatures hoping to propagate some goodness and peace, yet are conscious of the risk of walking around with an open heart. How can one pass through the day and fulfill family obligations and hold the job that is expected of her if she is constantly consumed by all that is wrong out there? Perhaps these thoughts betray my own cowardice, but I fear I am not alone in my inability to act in the face of so many environmental crises and people in desperate need.

But I had to remind myself that there is so much to do without getting pulled out by the riptide of despair into an unmanageable sea of an imperfect planet. It all starts with the existence I actually do inhabit each day. That was when I started singing “Shape of My Heart” from Sting’s Ten Summoner’s Tales (an album that, along with Fumbling Towards Ecstasy set the course of my high school soul). Something about love hidden beneath a gambler’s hand, passion masked by a card player’s face… My love for this world buried beneath what is expected and what needs to get done and who needs to be pleased – I am meant to be witty and a bit sarcastic and please the crowd with a punchline rather than with sweetness.

Really though, who is truly served if I berate myself for staying in and writing these words instead of volunteering my time somewhere or sacrificing all that I know for those who need me “more”? Isn’t there enough to do in living the truth of my heart and being profligate with my compassion to enrich the lives of those around me?

Challenging the Politcs of Fear

Earth ReflectionDriving home from work last night listening to NPR, as usual, I was left slack-jawed and muttering to myself at two stories presented back-to-back on All Things Considered: one on the plan to “map” Los Angeles’s Muslim community and the other about Italy’s expulsion of immigrants in response to the murder of a naval officer’s wife allegedly beaten to death by a Romanian immigrant. I can only hope that NPR realized the horrific juxtaposition of these stories that reeked of racism and xenophobia and intended to stir a bit of outrage. But perhaps they were just reporting the “news”…

L.A.’s deputy police chief Michael Downing said their new program is intended to identify the 500,000-700,000 Muslims in the city and determine the “trust level” so the department could serve these communities better. Of course, we are not meant to believe in this altruistic pitch, precisely because he went on to say that they were seeking groups who were “susceptible to violent ideologically based extremism.” Now, in no way am I advocating that we turn a blind eye to violent extremism or pretend that it does not exist, because surely it does, but what do we gain by singling out over half a million people for closer examination because of their faith, because of their coreligionists’ behavior? But it’s not racial profiling, he said, of course not.

In Italy, an emergency decree permits local police officials to expel EU citizens with criminal records if they are deemed dangerous to public safety. Of particular focus are the Romani people, the “gypsies,” who are criticized for being “unable to integrate into [Italian] society.” I always love how only “criminals” are accused of an inability to integrate with society; isn’t the history of the western world based on trampling indigenous culture? Neither Europeans nor Americans have ever been skilled at honoring “when in Rome…”

Certainly NPR could not do full justice to these stories in under five minutes each and I do not claim to grasp all of the mitigating factors that informed these law enforcement decisions, but it is the spirit of distrust and the politics of fear that reign across the globe that really terrifies me. I do realize that bad things happen in the world, and that that judging people by their religion and homeland is as old as these concepts themselves, and that a thug is a thug, and a terrorist a terrorist. I also realize I have the luxury of declaring such approaches to public safety preposterous (which public, by the way?). It belies the fact that my cocoon of American middle class privilege has never really been shaken. But how can we move forward as a global society when we make decisions based on suspicion and hatred?

If I am to believe that the only answer is love and the pursuit of understanding and unity, which I do, then I am obligated to rail against the way governments exploit and capitalize upon fear. A fearful citizenry is robbed of its ability to ask critical questions and loses aspects of its humanity when everyone and everything is seen through a veil of anxiety. It is not impractical or naive to believe that there is a better way, it’s just much more difficult and takes the responsibility of salvation out of the hands of the Michael Downings of the world and places it squarely in ours. We only resist a culture of fear by challenging it within ourselves.