Monumental

Purchasing a tombstone is inevitably a sobering experience, especially when its your own. That’s what I did during the last week of 2017. Seemed practical… with no children, who’s going to do it? Besides, it gives you the opportunity to select what you want. Or, better, what I don’t want — no “Praying Hands”, thank you very much!

I’ve often mused that I wanted my epithet to be “He made good soup.” It’s simple, descriptive, accurate. Conjures hospitality, creativity, frugality, a melding of many pieces into one grand symphony. Mom worked miracles with her clean-out-the-refrigerator soups as Dad awaited his next paycheck. What better could be said about someone’s life?

My cremains will be interred in a plot next to my parents in a Nebraska town of 1600 people where we haven’t lived for more than 62 years. We have four generations of family in that cemetery. Though I haven’t lived in Nebraska for more than forty years, the prairie remains my home and where my soul, even now, finds rest.

There is a fitting and delightful irony in that my final resting place will be more than 300 miles from where I now live but less than a quarter-mile from the house where my parents lived when I was conceived.

Proximity has never characterized our relationship! A lively sense of adventure and curiosity necessitated that I move on, travel the world, shed the provincialism I naively ascribed to my origins. Even being interred next to my parents was unimaginable for a time. As required in adolescence and young adulthood deep existential longings beckoned me beyond, always on to new horizons. Parents symbolize origins; I sought the world, and as much as of it I could get.

Parents frequently become a convenient and easy receptor for all we want to leave behind, their deficiencies an easy target for our ire. After all, we recognize at some deep level they are the only ones we get and that’s never going to change.  For better or worse we are irrevocably hitched. So we let ’em have it. They’re always our parents!

If we are especially fortunate we may find an abiding confidence that they may even love us unconditionally (even if not in the way we’d prefer). Though I have no personal experience, I’ve come to wonder whether the best parents can hope is for their heartache to be balanced with the consolation and joy children periodically deliver.

Perhaps herein lies the real gift — in our living we discover that anguish and joy are not an either/or proposition. Rather, they converge into a single, swirling vortex. In that swirling rough’n’tumble we discover as good a definition of love as any.

Here’s something I do know. In our youth a certain insatiable longing and expansiveness necessarily drives us outward and we need to dispose of the identity our parents and origins conferred upon us. Like the vast Nebraska prairie we envision limitless space and fix our eyes on the expansive horizon, ever captivated by whatever lies beyond. We eventually move from being pioneers to becoming homesteaders of our own.

Then, there comes a time we discover our deepest longings, most profound hungers, insatiable appetites cannot be satisfied. They need not be satisfied. Oh, we may try! But the horizon always recedes beyond us! The especially privileged among us will attempt to find satisfaction in what will ultimately be found insufficient to the need. Acquisitions of all sorts easily slide into consumerism or fetishes at best and obsessions or addictions in more desperate extremes.

Perhaps one key reason children and parents inevitably clash lies in the fact we engage one another at two different stages of life. One driven by an expansive, limitless trajectory; the other drawn deeper into an awareness of life’s complexities. We are destined to reside in different universes though never apart.

To the uninitiated, the Nebraska prairie appears barren, flat, featureless. Life on the plains carries a certain emptiness, longing, loneliness. That is precisely what beckons my soul. But cannot this be said of every place of human habitation? Ultimately, wherever we reside, we must find satisfaction beyond our dreams, beyond place, beyond selves.

The Nebraska prairie is the place where my soul finds rest. One way or another, we are all drawn deeper than we could have seen or imagined into discovering our most authentic selves. Horizons expand beyond the geographical. Life transcends the individual. Our trek paradoxically takes us, not just beyond, but ever deeper — deeper into emptiness, longing, yearning.

Fulfillment comes when we enter, or are plunged, more deeply if not willingly into that vast expansiveness. The hard and perplexing invitation to a full and happy life lies not in our futile efforts to fill an existential emptiness. Rather, our happiness and wholeness is discovered when we welcome, probe and embrace the wisdom this womb-like cavern holds for us. Therein lies life’s destiny and fulfillment.

My parents’ memorial sits inconspicuously atop a windswept hill in Nebraska. Mine will stand aside it — same size, same shape, same granite stone. Only difference being that Mom and Dad’s “Praying Hands” will be replaced by my simple cross. My husband asked, “Will your monument say, ‘He made good soup’?” My response, “No, it says something even better and more distinguished… ‘Son of Arthur and Gertrude’!”

My two Godson nephews have been instructed to simply place my cremains into the ground. The only graveside service I request is that they read aloud the conclusion to T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding. In part it says:

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
__________________

Eliot’s poem Little Gidding may be found at: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/history/winter/w3206/edit/tseliotlittlegidding.html

Dumb Luck

That’s all it was… dumb luck! Desperate to get a gift in the mail for a dear friend, I simply happened upon an obscure reference to For the Time Being by the distinguished 20th century poet, W.H. Auden. I’d never heard of it and concluded its very obscurity would appeal to my erudite friend. Besides, he is really smart and works at a prestigious university — my gift would make me look smart by association!

But that, too, may be post factual reconstruction. My initial motivation had little to do with erudition or even personal insecurities beneath my need to look smart. I was inspired by the fact that this famously gay poet had in midlife returned to Christianity. After the death of his mother and breakup with the man to whom he considered himself married, Auden dedicated this Christmas oratorio to his mother and wrote as emotional catharsis as much as testament of faith. Seemed like a good read for a long winter’s night!

It was not personal genius that led me to Auden’s oratorio. Rather it was dumb luck — what some might call grace! And, Auden far exceeds my mundane expectations. Nowhere does his probing and provocative rendition of the Christmas story settle for sentimentality or trite piety. His is the tempered faith of one who has struggled with life and whose own journey to Bethlehem was harsh, long and fraught with doubt.

We say that Christmas is for children, and that’s true. But there is nothing childish, cuddly or cozy about the original story. It must pass the test of time; its truth must endure through turmoil and trials that assail us. In this it must surpass any question of historicity and reveal an even more timeless truth. Few of us risk looking beyond the caricature of a sweet, unassuming, adorable babe. Auden takes the plunge!

And plunge we must — again and again. Hardly a child any longer, this Christmas marks my 67th journey through the season (and I’m counting on many more). Dumb luck led me to discover Auden’s oratorio — the unimagined, graced vehicle revealing Christmas as fresh, true, wondrous, here-and-now despite my 67th journey over the terrain. A few examples suffice…

Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are patently patriarchal, some would say stiflingly patriarchal. But is the real problem with the text or with our blind, sterile reading? Without premeditated agenda or argumentative intent Auden holds in bold relief the voiceless, befuddled, slow to catch-on Joseph in what even the Gospels cast as a secondary, supportive role. Mary, then as now, holds center stage.

Add to this the “silencing” of Zechariah when he dismisses even the potential for his wife to give birth in her old age. With fresh insight these Gospel narratives are hardly paternalistic. Rather they cast Mary and Elizabeth with the lead roles in a drama featuring what only women can do — give birth, bringing forth a savor. Patriarchy is set aside and assigned a supporting role! The text has been there all along. Why haven’t I recognized this?

The shepherds and magi are similarly flush with fresh meaning in the poet’s telling. Shepherds readily personify the settled ones, those who express the best of the past, keeping the home fires burning. The magi are persistent seekers, quick to leave the safe and familiar to discover what is beyond. Both have a place.

Neither is better. Each expresses our human capacity — indeed, our need — to recognize in this vulnerable, innocuous infant the incarnation of God-With-Us, Word made Flesh. That is the perennial invitation, to see the child for whom it is. Yes, to sit right down in the incredulity of it all. To say yes to the inconceivable.

We come to manger-like places all the time; asked first to actually see what is there, then to affirm that which we see as sacred. Never meant to resolve the mystery with tight, conclusive answers. Rather, we are invited to inch ever more deeply into the the truth our lives and the sometimes messy world which enfolds us.

The most we can offer is our intent, mustering a resolve to seek, follow and love the Mystery we recognize but cannot comprehend.

Such is our dumb luck, not genius, utter grace.
__________________
For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio by W. H. Auden. Introduction and edited by Alan Jacobs. Princeton University Press, 2013.

 

This Most Contradictory of Seasons

The bottom is about to drop out! We’ve been living on borrowed time. Still reluctant to face reality, it is what it is.

It’s not as if we haven’t been warned — today’s high in Minneapolis is to be 57; tomorrow’s temp is forecast to be 22! The redolent release of Fall is past. We are in for a full-bore collapse into the depths of winter.

We Minnesotans pride ourselves in being of hearty stock. Each year we enter this season with a conflicted mixture of reluctance and pride, reenactment of a familiar script and rehearsal for an even bigger drama that lies ahead.

Natives counsel new arrivals to our state with sage advice — learn to play in it; skating, cross-country skiing, show-shoeing, ice-fishing, “walk” the lakes. Those of Scandinavian descent advise the rest of us, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” Through Minnesota’s own expression of “natural selection” those of less hearty stock concoct veiled excuses to bail. Their loss!

What the uninformed protest as “harsh” Minnesota winters actually preserves our famed North Woods. Quail and other wildlife need snow cover to burrow into for cozy quarters. You haven’t truly relaxed until you know the solitude of cross-country skiing across of a frozen lake encircled with verdant pine, sentinel birch and the silhouettes of naked bur oak. A good hard winter is also nature’s best defense against the devastation of Emerald Ash Bore and the invasive Asian beetle. Then there is the hearth — that place where hearts are warmed, friendship deepens, and love finds expression.

So why such resistance? Why this talk of the bottom falling out? Why such reluctance and resignation? …a hunker-down survivalist stoicism? …the insistent urge to escape? Some seem captive to the sparseness of winter, afflicted with tunnel vision, willing to wallow in a life of hibernation. They appear constitutionally incapable of embracing beauty, recognizing promise, and plumbing life’s depths.

But is not this hardness of heart an unyielding refusal to change, a fear of any disruption to preferred routines, a denial of the passage of time, a poverty of imagination? We can too easily and stubbornly hold the promise for any potential future in a straight-jacket of our own making.

You need not be a privileged Minnesotan to embrace the offering of this sparsest of seasons. Our lives are also lived according to passages not made of uniform chronology. At any time of year we may bear the brunt of loss, the trauma of a potentially terminal diagnosis, the breakup of a relationship. Thankfully not all disruptions to the way things are, or want them to be, are as harsh or traumatic. We must engage them all to their depths if we are to fully live.

Mary Oliver lives on the easternmost tip of Cape Cod and has long been our most loyal chronicler of life’s fury, simplicity, sparseness and sublime beauty. Her poem, On Winter’s Margin captures both the timeless potential and promise of this most contradictory of seasons:

On winter’s margin, see the small birds now
With half-forged memories come flocking home
To gardens famous for their charity.
The green globe’s broken; vines like tangled veins
Hang at the entrance to the silent wood.

With half a loaf, I am the prince of crumbs;
By time snow’s down, the birds amassed will sing
Like children for their sire to walk abroad!
But what I love, is the gray stubborn hawk
Who floats alone beyond the frozen vines;
And what I dream of are the patient deer
Who stand on legs like reeds and drink the wind;—

They are what saves the world: who choose to grow
Thin to a starting point beyond this squalor.

“What Do You Want For Christmas?”

Many are familiar with my banana story. A few years back on April 5, my mother’s birthday, I was slicing a banana over my morning Raisin Bran. A warm consolation suddenly transported me back nearly 60 years. I was a little boy and Mom was slicing a banana over my breakfast cereal. She gave me half. To my protestations of wanting the whole banana Mom simply said, “Richard, you can have your share but you need to leave some for the others.”

This morning her words again hit me with a jolt. Sitting in my recliner, French Roast in hand, I felt a sudden, final “drop” of an elevator settling upon arrival on a lower level. For years I have been focusing on only half of her wisdom — “you have to leave some for the others.” That’s essential counsel for a 5 year old, especially given Mom’s challenge of feeding ten kids. But Mom was also saying, “You can have your share.”

These days — and many decades beyond 5 years old — its easy to deflect our loved ones’ queries about what we want for Christmas. “Oh, honey, I don’t need a thing! A pair of socks or underwear would be just fine.” How deflating is that to their holiday spirit! The temptation to take less under the pretense of appearing “loving” lurks just below the surface in many of us. Such pseudo-humility still leaves its focus on me. More insidiously, it risks gutting our inherent value as persons.

It’s taken decades for me to glean the gentle, compassionate wisdom elders have been quietly modeling. To be truly humble means to be grounded, like humus, in the richness of our true selves. Humility has little to do with making ourselves less than we are. Rather, humility lies in the honest acceptance of our true selves as blessed creatures with legitimate desires and needs — as well as faults — woven into relationship with others within this magnificent creation.

Yes, in a consumerist culture fixated on “self” and “stuff” there are enormous pressures to buy, binge and indulge. Powerful forces easily subvert moderation, balance, equilibrium. Needs get inflated, desires distorted. But for mature people intent on doing good, the more pressing danger is much more complicated and fraught with peril — that we make too little of ourselves!

Mom unwittingly conveyed another bit of essential wisdom. Born before women had the right to vote, cultural norms continued to constrain her options and proscribe her self-initiative. Weighed down by ten kids (as her tenth child I have a distinct right to state this), Mom was further coerced into putting others first.

This morning, over my cereal, I hear her saying, “Richard, you have to have a self before you can give it away.” In this, too, she remains one of my best teachers and most humble human beings I will ever know.

Too many are still prevented by social norms and unjust structures from discovering and celebrating the fullness of their God-given dignity. Is there any question about what should be on our Christmas wish list?

Bring It On… All of It!

Who doesn’t feel overwhelmed? And if we don’t, who among us does not succumb to the seasonal pressure to pretend that we are. Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday — and all the rest — whisk us toward the inevitability of “the Holidays.” Baubles galore are dangled in front of us as if material consumption can somehow quench our deep human longing. It’s exhausting!

Need it be? We too easily buy a bill of goods feeding a belief that the good life is one of luxury and ease, a life free of pain or insecurity. The older we get the more we appreciate the foolishness of our ways and the incapacity of that standard to deliver. In fact, those fortunate enough to reach the Biblical benchmark of three-score-and-ten are quite familiar with diminishment, loss and slowing down. What might that be about?

Despite our frenzied pace, even with our convenience items, not withstanding our creature comforts, we know in our gut there is something more. Our hearts crave something deeper. We seek a joy greater than mere happiness; we desire an abiding serenity that rests securely beneath all the turbulence; ultimately, all we want is to savor a bit of that Love which resides within the eye of the hurricane.

For millennia, that’s what this time of year has been about. The winter solstice invites us to celebrate the potency of womb-like darkness. Christians know this season as Advent — a period of intentional longing and expectancy for the pregnancy of time to finally deliver light, life, a savior. As with the birth of every child, we cannot short-circuit the development only patience brings forth. We can only enter the process, embrace the promise. We must receive the powerlessness and vulnerability of a newborn into our lives.

Our cultural traditions and social customs — richly diverse as they may be — have the potential to distract us from this one necessity. We can flutter above in a frenzied haze and never find that which alone is the “perfect gift” we seek. So knowing it as a wish for myself as much as for anyone else, I offer the following as a prayer. May we all experience more of what this season has in store for us:

I do not know what these shadows ask of you,

what they might hold that means you good or ill.

It is not for me to reckon whether you should linger or you should leave.

 

But this is what I can ask for you:

 

That in the darkness there be a blessing.

That in the shadows there be a welcome.

That in the night you be encompassed

by the Love that knows your name.

 

-Jan Richardson from Advent 1: A Blessing for Traveling in the Dark

_______________

Thanks to the website of Wisdom Ways, a ministry of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in St. Paul, MN for brining this poem by Jan Richardson to my attention.

The Paradox of Parents

Mom and Dad had tough lives! Married in 1931 as the Great Depression and drought was overtaking their Nebraska farming community, they wouldn’t leave the farm until 1945 at the end of World War II. I’m the youngest of ten kids and how they managed to feed, clothe and educate us all in Catholic school remains one of the great miracles of our family history. Naturally, my parents and the life they passed on conjures special memories at Thanksgiving.

Dad dropped out of school in the 10th grade because Grandpa needed help on the farm. Grandpa was known to have said, “After you have reading and can work numbers, what more do you need?” Cultural norms presumed that every girl was destined to become a farm wife. These values precluded Mom from even beginning high school despite earning the top score in Cedar County on the standardize 8th grade exams.

There was a time while pursuing professional and advanced masters degrees that my parents lack of formal education was an embarrassment. I lived in fear that if my “sophisticated”, upper class friends really new of my humble, uneducated heritage they would see me as the fraud I was. Clearly, my exaggerated ego and fragile self-image was a powerful force in all this pretense and hiding of factual truths. No more!

This weekend I’m savoring The Sage’s Tao Te Ching, Ancient Advice for the Second Half of Life by William Martin. It’s been news to me that Lao Tzu is said to have been the teacher of Confucius more than two thousand five hundred years ago. Unlike his much more prolific student, Lao Tzu left us only about five thousand words. Most of these are in his Tao Te Ching. His is not esoteric, academic “book learning” as my Grandpa might have said. Rather Lao Tzu passes on practical wisdom, the sort of genius I now recognize my Mom and Dad had in abundance.

Today’s a case in point. I’ve been mulling over #52 of Tao Te Ching‘s ninety-one brief teachings:

The world has said

that those who do the right things,

choose the right careers,

work hard,

and avoid mistakes,

shall satisfy their desires

and be at peace.

The sage knows

that this is an illusion born of fear.

Great accomplishments do not bring peace.

Massive failures do not bring despair.

The choice between peace

and despair

is an inner choice

that may be made at any moment.

***

I see much despair among the aging

that is so unnecessary.

Our history does not determine our present.

Peace is always available to us.

It is a matter of choice.

William Martin’s new interpretation in The Sage’s Tao Te Ching is masterful for the way it captures the nuanced polarities of our lives some sevenhundred generations after being composed. He captures the perplexities and paradox of success and failure, gain and loss, love and fear, sickness and health, life and death embedded in Lao Tzu’s genius.

Mom and Dad probably knew very little about Confucius. I’m certain they had never heard of Lao Tzu. But they seemed to have known every bit as much when they’d pass on such aphorisms as, “Life is pretty much what you choose to make of it!” or “You are about as happy as you make up your mind to be!” Yes, their lives where tough! Yet, their lives were distinguished by generosity, love, faith, determination and hard work. Circumstances didn’t often lend themselves to having fun, but they even indulged a bit of that from time to time.

This Thanksgiving weekend, kicking back and relaxing as we are able, I am immensely grateful and proud to have been raised by ones so learned and wise. Mom and Dad passed along the best education I could have ever received.

Letting Go

Those who love me do so despite my over-sized ego, propensity to confuse my considered opinions with objective truth, and a dogged commitment to “my way” of doing things. This is not a new insight and some especially good friends have been able to reflect back to me some of this truth, if ever so cautiously.

At 67 I’m trying to accept a certain “fixed-ness” about my personality. I’m trying to live with a turn on the popular phrase, “What I see is what I get it!” On this Thanksgiving weekend I am increasingly aware of and grateful for those who look beyond my faults and failings to love me for the jumbled mixture of good and bad that I am.

For awhile now, my “sacred word” in a sputtering practice of Centering Prayer has been rapha, meaning to be weak, to let go, to release. Given my challenge outlined above, there should be no surprise that its grounded in “Be still, and know that I am God!” (Psalm 46:10). Some more learned than me suggest my “sacred word” might better be translated as “cause yourselves to let go” or “let yourselves become weak”.

Many days I struggle (a more honest verb might be avoid) fitting in my 20 minute meditation period. While the house is quiet this Thanksgiving morning and my husband makes pies for our family feast this afternoon there are no distractions from climbing the stairs to my prayer “cave”. As always, Jeb the Dog dutifully follows and positions himself on the rug behind me.

Rapha … rapha … rapha … settles my breathing as I attempt to be still, let go, release from my over-sized ego-self. Thoughts and distractions vie for attention much like frenzied fans yell, “me, me, me; here, here, here” to the stadium attendant tossing wiffle balls into the stands before a game.

As my iPhone timer silently ticks off the assigned 20 minutes, more pious thoughts wedge their way into an array of flashy images being cast onto the scrim of my ego. From Philippians 2: “Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped [now there’s a huge ego distraction for you!] but humbled himself.” The Annunciation… “Be it done unto me according to your will.” Or Jesus in the Garden… After expressing his opinion to the point of sweating blood, it was not his ego-self mustering a reluctant “But not my will but yours be done.”

Rapharapharapha … soon even such piously occluded projections fade as the distraction they are from a much needed nudge to become weak, to truly let go, to actually release my 67 y/o ego-self to the One who is truly God.

Rapharapharapha … as the iPhone chimes gently invite me back after the assigned minutes it is not the psalmist, Mary of Nazareth, or even Jesus facing crucifixion that grounds my consolation. Surprisingly, but ever so graciously, May Sarton’s AutumnSonnet gives voice to that which is anything but a distraction: “cause yourselves to let go”; “let yourselves become weak”.

With the suggestion that “my ego” be substituted for “you” in the first and last lines, I offer her words to you…

If I can let you go as trees let go
Their leaves, so casually, one by one,
If I can come to know what they do know,
That fall is the release, the consummation,
Then fear of time and the uncertain fruit
Would not distemper the great lucid skies
This strangest autumn, mellow and acute.
If I can take the dark with open eyes
And call it seasonal, not harsh or strange
(For love itself may need a time of sleep),
And, treelike, stand unmoved before the change,
Lose what I lose to keep what I can keep,
The strong root still alive under the snow,
Love will endure — if I can let you go.

———————-
AutumnSonnet by May Sarton, from “Selected Poems of May Sarton” 1978.
John J. Parsons provides a marvelous reflection on “surrender” and more fully explains the Hebrew origins of rapha. I encourage you to take a look at:
‪http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Meditations/Be_Still/be_still.html ‬