Friday, December 24, 2010

The gift

This morning, Christmas eve, we woke to find the world outside our frosted windows miraculously adorned in sparkling white, or at least it felt miraculous: the sudden transformation of even the ugliest edges, roads and ruts, wires, poles and structures into objects of wonder in a magical landscape. The lofty and low, the prized and despised, the precious and neglected, subjected to the beneficent equity of snowfall. Everything made new. A clean slate. Racket and commotion absorbed into its calm purity. Stillness, awe, goodwill. Peace on earth. And though snowfall in Bethlehem remains a rare event, a White Christmas somehow feels like a "real" Christmas as we celebrate the birth of Immanuel: "God with us." All of us.
Let it snow.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Long Surrender

It's been a long, long, wordless season. In those times when language remains for me stifled and inadequate, I grope for what is unsayable from whom I can, those souls, friends and strangers, who have weathered their own hazardous and lonely journeys and somehow mined their dark days to forge art imbued with the weight of struggle, hard times oh so human and oh so inevitable. Art speaks to and for those of us still mired and mute until we finally find our way back to our own voices.

How timely this album from Over the Rhine, The Long Surrender, chuck full of lyrics voicing what I cannot not articulate. The arrangements are as gorgeous as Karin's voice. "All of my friends are part saint and part sinner," she sings on one of my favorite tracks, "All my favorite people are broken" and "The poet says, 'You must praise the mutilated world,'" the poet being my beloved former teacher, Adam Zagajewski. "Rave On" inspired by Pete Fairchild's poem, is another favorite track (and great poem.) "The Laugh of Recognition" when "you laugh but you feel like dying." You saints and sinners, artists and poets. For your gifts of broken beauty to those of us sojourning in the valley of relinquishment: thank you.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Every now and again take a good look at something not made with hands--a mountain, a star, the turn of a stream. There will come to you wisdom and patience and solace and, above all, the assurance that you are not alone in the world.
--Sidney Lovett

Monday, April 12, 2010

Go geek

When I consider the vast array of discoveries that have been made in the history of mankind I marvel at what we humans have figured out. If I had access to the very same information that Galileo or Newton or Einstein or Pasteur or Curie or Brahms had I'd still lack, even granted 1000 undisturbed years and a computer, the slightest inkling of the mechanics of quarks, germs, genes, plate tectonics, nuclear fusion, photo synthesis or how to compose a symphony. But I'm oh so grateful that each of them, and countless others, one day smacked their forehead and yelped, "Aha!" Because I just can't get over how cool this world is. How all the bits and pieces work together to produce such fabulous results. And while I don't have to understand the color spectrum to appreciate a rainbow, it's all the more intriguing to understand what engineers such precise splendor. There is beauty in knowledge, in the culmination of century upon century of wonder and wondering by people in every corner of our planet whose investigations in big and small ways connect in a brilliant web that both illuminates and mystifies as it grows, like gravity which contracts our universe even as, paradoxically, dark matter expands it. In 10,000 more years of brainpower we'll have discovered only how much more there is yet to uncover. And I still will not have figured out Algebra I.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

13 Ways of Looking at a Blessing

"Celebration when you're calling the shots? Easy. Celebration when your plan is working? Anyone can do that. But when you realize that the story of your life could be told a thousand different ways, that you could tell it over and over as a tragedy, but you choose to call it an epic, that's when you start to learn what celebration is. When what you see in front of you is so far outside what you dreamed, but you have the belief, the boldness, the courage to call it beautiful instead of calling it wrong, that's celebration.

When you can invest yourself deeply and unremittingly in the life that surrounds you instead of declaring yourself out of the game once and for all, because what's happened to you is too bad, too deep, too ugly for anyone to expect you to move on from, that's the good, rich place. That's the place where the things that looked for all intents and purposes like curses start to stand up and shimmer and dance, and you realize with a gasp that they may have been blessings all along. Or maybe not. Maybe they were curses, in fact, but the force of your belief and your hope and your desperate love for life as it actually unfolding, has brought a blessing from a curse, like water from a stone, like life from a tomb, like the actual story of God over and over." (Another excerpt from "Cold Tangerines" from the chapter called "Blessings and Curses.")

Sometimes it takes a day, or a year, or maybe even ten years to recognize a curse as a hard won blessing. And if find yourself still on the left side of that bell curve, struggling to believe something like the above could be true, then it might help to grab the coattails of someone who's walked out of darkness ahead of you and hold on for dear life. Throughout my life, from earliest childhood, I've clung to the words of strangers I've found in the pages of myriad books for solace, inspiration and enlightenment. Things I've read have challenged my assumptions, spurred action and wrought untold changes of heart. I've found kindred spirits scattered across centuries and continents and therein drawn courage, conviction and the occasional belly laugh. Words on pages have saved me, time and again.

Whatever circumstances a writer chooses to narrate can be cast in an infinite number of ways, on a continuum of hopeless tragedy on one end to triumphing epic on the other, depending on what they choose to believe about their own story. Anyone can look back over their life and count the failures, losses, betrayals and heartbreaks we all inevitably endure as proof their lives are out of control, meaningless and ridiculous and thereby justify a life of despair, blame and regret. Others, usually after a sufficient amount of time has bestowed the gift of perspective, can interpret those very difficult and sometimes unbearable experiences as part of, and even necessary to, the larger arc of the narrative which is creating the unique individual with whom they gift the world.

Last night at my book club, our planned Lenten discussion of Rosemary Mahoney's "The Singular Pilgrim: Walks on Sacred Ground," in which she recounts her travels to ancient pilgrimage sites in service to her own yearnings, digressed to each of us recounting our own spiritual journey, thus far, to the other women around the table. I realized, depending on how I told the story of my life, I could sound like a fruitcake or heroic quester. Fruitcake on one end, hero on the other. On any given day I can slide the weight toward one or the other, depending on how I choose to perceive and portray events. And this is how all of us, even those who will never pick up a pen, are writers, casting the story of our lives according to what we choose to believe about them. Whether we ever travel to an actual pilgrimage site or not, we are all pilgrims, with no choice but to walk on and into the bright and bewildering adventure which is our own life.

Our long suffered winter is beginning to recede, slow as a developing Polaroid, and people emerge blinking from their houses to rake leaves, tidy hedges and clean windows in the sudden surprise of sun. Riffs of birdsong has tickled the air these last few mornings and vees of birds sweep across the sky--their flight another departure and return. Which this leg of their journey? Depends on where you are standing when you look up.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Extreme Shalom

My mother and sister were up from sunnier climes recently, for a visit to our stripped down, frozen tundra. This winter, which has produced agonizingly long months of bitter, gray days with only the briefest glimpses of sunshine, joie de vivre in frigid lockdown, was cheered for me, temporarily, by the warmth of their brief stay. My mother had in tow a book she was just finishing, passed on to her by her sister who lives in Maryland, a state which has seen more than its fair share of snow dumps and harsh weather this winter. The book's entitled Cold Tangerines, written by Shauna Niequist, and if the endurance of this season has pressed long and hard against your bones perhaps it's also chipped away a space for a bit of contemplation. I offer you as solace and inspiration these excerpts from the chapter, "Shalom:"

"I have glimpses every once in a while of this achingly beautiful way of living that comes when the plates stop spinning and the masks fall off and the apologies come from the deepest places and so do the prayers, and I am fighting, elbowing to make more of my life that life. I want that spirit or force of happiness that is so much deeper than happy--peace that comes from your toes, that makes you want to live forever, that makes you gulp back sobs because you remember so many moments of so much un-peace....The word I use for it is shalom. It is the physical, sense-oriented, relational, communal, personal, ideological posture that arches God-ward....

To get there, I'm finding, is the hardest work and the most worthwhile fight. Shalom requires so much, so much more than I thought I would have to sacrifice, and it scrapes so deeply through the lowest parts of me, divulging and demonstrating so many dark corners. It's something you can't fake, so you have to lay yourself open to it, wide open and vulnerable to what it might ask of you, what it might require you give up, get over, get outside of, get free from....Shalom is about God, and about the voice and spirit of God blowing through and permeating all the dark corners that we've chopped off, locked down. It's about believing, and letting belief move you to forgive. It's about grace, and letting grace propel you into action....It's about living in a world of movie theaters and shoes and highways and websites, and finding those things to be shot through with the same spirit and divinity and possibility that we see in ourselves. It's living with purpose and sacrifice and intention, willing to be held to the highest, narrowest possible standard of goodness, and in the same breath, finding goodness where other people see nothing but dirt."

Or slush. Or endless days of winter.

Friday, February 05, 2010

The brightness of a new page (or letter)

Recently, an unexpected hand written note from a friend arrived in my mailbox. That in itself has become an all too rare pleasure, if not lost art. It was written on cardstock upon which a small original painting had been affixed. Included was part of a poem by Rilke. And handwriting in ink which illustrates something of the character of the writer. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a letter is worth a thousand emails.
The poem is worth sharing:

I'm living just as the century ends.

A great leaf, that God and you and I
Have covered with writing
Turns now, overhead, in strange hands.
We feel the sweep of it like a wind.

We see the brightness of a new page
Where everything yet can happen.

Unmoved by us, the fates take its measure
And look at one another, saying nothing.

Friday, January 01, 2010

2010: the road ahead

Have you ever considered all the gazillions of events that have conspired to bring you to exactly where you are today? Starting with events that occurred way before you were born, such as the precise strength of gravity which allowed the universe to coalesce but not collapse and including every action taken or not taken by a countless multitude of people beside and including yourself, your parents, their parents and so on? "Go back just eight generations to about the time that Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born, and already there are over 250 people on whose timely couplings your existence depends."1 How many times have you been conscious of the fact that one seemingly tiny action changed the course of your life (and how many times not)? All that to say that your life is a unique story, miraculous really, a story still being written that even you, the star of the show, cannot really control or even accurately predict very much about. Which is equal parts unsettling and exhilarating. You're still reading your own novel, a page turner, with its highs and lows, its terrors and joys, its inexhaustible surprises. Captivated by this most gripping of books, sharing the pages with all sorts of outrageous characters, we try to anticipate what will happen next. Who knows?
Not us. Not yet. But on this New Year's Day I remain grateful for the cast of characters that enrich my story and another day I get to turn the page.

1 Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything