Courage, For Crying Out Loud!

The word of the year is going to have to be courage.

I tried strength, but I worry there is blindness in just muscling through.

I was debating between manifesting and allowing, but that just proved how confused and addled I have allowed myself to become.  Will I be coming or going in 2010?  Forcing it or just letting life happen to me? Ugh, too much stress to solve THAT in one word.

I need a middle road that keeps me an active player in my fate and yet allows me to surrender to the larger forces of the Universe.

And so, instead of trying to craft a yearlong strategy, I will focus on how I will face life as its challenges and mystery emerge.

With courage.

Growing up, I was never aware that moms could cry.  Since Moira’s birth I have been blessed with tons of quality time with my mother and she has told me plenty of stories about being a fully human mommy to my sister and me, occasional tears and all.  I don’t want to start weeping in the pantry, but at least I have some validation that it is possible to be frail sometimes while still keeping your kids secure in the (perhaps mythic) idea of the Power and Might of the Mommy.

The tidal waves of hormones through pregnancy and the “fourth trimester” have been ample excuse to dissolve into sobs.  It’s time to change that.  Not because I want to start bottling up my emotions or because I want to stop dealing with my feelings (impossible anyway), but because I need to take on the world with all my wits about me.

This is such a confessional turn (more than usual, even) for the first day of the year, but I do not think that I am alone in this.  For all that we may be proud of how aware we are, of how good it feels to “get it” about so many things, there is still a tendency toward leading with our weaknesses.

We have examined our pasts, our spirits, our souls, and we feel pretty comfortable there.  Light has been cast on the wounds and the failings and the idiosyncrasies that make us weird and wonderful.  All this plumbing of our inner depths can leave us holding buckets of pain and pounds of explanations for why we react the way we do, why it’s ok that we’re broken.

All this self examination does no always bring us to the place of wholeness, to strength, to courage, to passion, to forward momentum.

That takes another kind of work, a fiery kind of work that requires more energy than it might takes simply to look within and endlessly ask “why?”

I know a lot about who I am, and I know why I behave how I do.  Now is the time to act on that knowledge, cultivate the behaviors that serve me and abandon those which do not.

Now is the time to turn outward to not only look upon the world with courage, but to move through the world embodying the Damn Fine Courageous and Outrageous Mother that I know I really am.

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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.

On a Scale of One to Ten – Thirty

Pam Snow/Canadian Press)
Pam Snow/Canadian Press)

This has not been a winter to speak aloud.

My words have frozen in my throat or in the pages of my private books and rarely been able to cross the ice to the outer world.  I know that sound carries best over open water.  It seems that those waters have to be flowing freely, not suspended in a bitter February’s thoughtfulness.

Wait, I misspeak.  It is not I that is bitter, but the weather.  And even then, I am spinning frigid tales and  manipulating them for my own rhetoric.  The view from my front window offers grass like straw and sad heaps of forgotten leaves with only the occasional sad mountain of snow.  We expect flurries throughout the weekend – it’s still winter after all – but she has let her white cloak slip low enough to prove that not even the ice can last forever.

I spoke of returning the other day.  Returning is a long and careful process.  It can mean the traveler is still a great distance from home.

When my healer experiences great spiritual shifts she talks about all the internal furniture being rearranged. I still live in a new house that is short on chairs and couches, so I’ll stick to the images of the landscape – the view is always free even if we can’t yet afford new bookshelves. 

My inner landscape has been reformed during a 10 days of sickness and soul searching. I’ve watched new river valleys form and have shored up my retaining walls.  I have repaved a concrete wasteland with a rainbow of precious stones.

I only weep a little at the changes being wrought, the unfamiliar, though beautiful, territory being forged within.  A new home is a great milestone, but one that is surely accompanied by mourning for all that was.  New houses also mean a great many stubbed toes when one needs a glass of water in the middle of the night.

So I am rejoicing in my new caverns of joy and testing the echoes against my new interior walls.  But I am still receiving snippets of news reports about the maelstrom out there that seems to have nothing to do with this inner transformation or the February sunshine beyond the shadows of my front porch.

I am still a creature of this world for all that I have spent the better part of two weeks diving in my own ocean.  I realize that I am caught in this web of shift and discomfort and even chaos that has caught hold of our societies.

In the midst of all this tumult, there was the voice of a man from Canada who spoke with the disjointed music of Scotland and the mid-west and the southern Maritimes that I know so well.  Give yourself a couple of minutes to listen to the story of five men in Seal Cove, Newfoundland who saved a pod of dolphins trapped in the thickening ice of their harbor.  Listen to his harmonies and his tale and think about what you might do that would lead you to reply “Oh, on scale of one to ten, thirty” when someone asked you how you feel.

There are parts of me feel like I am at a thirty, and there are bits of me that feel too lost in the flux of the soul to take stock and realize this journey is all about elation.  But, as I continue this process of returning I think I have found one more guidepost of inspiration that will help me redefine my internal measurement of all that is good.

Returning

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A flock of geese cut across my piece of sky as I walked into work this morning after five days away. Five days wrapped in a hermit’s cocoon of fatigue, an illness that bubbles up from the very place where body meets spirit, where mind confuses physical and emotional realities.  I am left to piece together whether it is more a sickness of the soul or if I can fall back on the diagnosis that can be found in a typical physician’s handbook.  What is really lying in wait – a series of dark nights that I must withstand or a virus in my bloodstream?

The geese were flying northeast, finding signs of an approaching spring that sent them over and beyond what still might look to be a hopelessly icy Hudson River.

And so, there are always signs of return and the recovery of the sort of life that is enjoyed in warmer and sunnier times.  And so I am grateful that I remembered to turn my face up to see nature’s messengers and wait for my own internal messengers to reveal their secrets.

Just… Listen, cried the black cat to woman with the madness in her eye

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Still allowing myself to be pulled in a million different directions as I try to balance my writerly instincts and my healer’s imperative and rollercoaster of marriage and our economic worries, I am feeling anything but aligned right now (my chosen theme of 2009). Priorities will have to shift and I will have to let some things fall away – at least for a little while.

In hopes of finding some guidance, I let my body unfurl in a few precious minutes of stretching this morning and then lit some candles and settled onto the meditation cushion. (My folks’ dog is back roaming her Cape Cod beaches, so I can finally set a pre-work rhythm for myself.)

And so I called in guides and conjured up prayers and let the mantra begin to flow. I was beginning to feel something. Those elusive fingers of the divine were wrapping themselves around my all too distracted soul.

But I just kept chasing after God, distracted by the caterwaul of a black kitty on the other side of the glass door. With no dog to harass, she was again 100% interested in human companionship. For several minutes she wailed and then she unsheathed those claws and let them sink luxuriously into the fresh white trim of the door frame.

From a place deeper than my fragile meditative state, a voice burst from my belly: SHUT UP!

I swear the angel on my altar looked at me with reproach for bringing that sort of aggression to what is meant to be sacred space. And so I grumbled as I stalked across the room to let the plaintive creature into my cozy lair.

Purring louder than my heavy footsteps, Banshee (aptly named, yes?) danced over to the candles and seemed to warm her heart shaped face in their light. When I sat down she wrapped herself around my hands and climbed gently to nestle her head in my neck.

“Cats are the Mother with fur,” spiritual teacher and writer Andrew Harvey once said. I am more than a little inclined to believe him. Here I was, forcing myself upon the sacred, demanding guidance and solace, dictating that solitary silence was the way to get there.  And there was Banshee, teaching me that I am not the one in control.

Again I am reminded that my spirit guides are not figments of an over-active imagination. They are breathing and purring and meowing beside me all the time. “Listen to me!” Banshee was calling. In all of this frantic madness to produce more and manifest more, I am seeking so desperately for clues and trampling every heaven sent sign in the process.

“Listen!” the little cat said, as she reminded me that she too is a child of the Goddess. Listen, she reminds me. Stop straining for that radio station just out of range. Stop and listen and realize the truest tune is what you’re calling interference.

“I stand here today humbled by the task before us”

inaugurationkeyholeHumility.

I had never considered the virtue of humility, the necessity magic that is conjured by being humble, until I began working with Caroline Myss’s book about Teresa of Avila’s theology, Entering the Castle.

Raised in the 80s age of self esteem – you can do anything, sky’s the limit, everyone is an individual snowflake worthy of accolades and advancement – humility was never considered a noteworthy skill. Who had time to learn what humility was when there were so many dreams to be chased and so much self promotion to be done ? The only way to get into college and then get a good job and be any sort of success at all was to learn young and learn well: you need to constantly remind the world that you are unique and worthy.

Slowly, the recognition that humility is in fact a virtue, not just the fall back plan for quiet kids who’ll never win the best prizes, has started to color my life. If you know me in the flesh, I’ll let you be the judge of whether that approach is really working… At least I can tell you I am thinking about it!

Humility has come to mind all week because I am still struck by the very first line of Barack Obama’s inaugural address: “I stand here today humbled by the task before us.”

Part of our new president’s mystique is his quiet confidence, his even demeanor and delivery, his deep belief in himself that allows him to move from this place of humility. We can all pray that this quality endures in him so that he can open his heart and mind to other perspectives and continue to work with the common good as his ultimate goal.

It is becoming more and more clear that humbleness not just an attitude for monks and scullery maids. Taking humility beyond an interior dialog with the soul and watching its practical application on the stage of presidential politics makes this spiritual work make a new sort of sense.

Like I said, humility never meant much to me until a couple of years ago when I picked up Myss’s book. I am left to wonder how many other brilliant words and ideas like that still circle around me, as yet ignored and unacknowledged. I know I cannot get hung up on all of the visions that have not yet revealed themselves to me – that is a sure way to madness, looking desperately for the next moment of enlightenment. It just inspires me once again: this journey through life offers so much promise, such evolution of the mind and soul, so many opportunities to look at this adventure of living afresh.

A couple more bits of wisdom from that incredible speech on January 20:

inaug-speechAs we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us today, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.