Holding each Moment

10176739514_0aaa3f47d5_oI am growing accustomed to an annual end-of-the-summer episode of the blues. I am wallowing in this place now, grieving the passage of time. Mourning the loss of the summer’s long days when I read and write and giggle with my children. All this and the summer isn’t even over yet.

No stranger to anxiety and depression I create strategies to lift my spirit. I will manage my sleep patterns and avoid alcohol. I will schedule time each day for that which feeds me: meditation, writing. I will stop checking my email first thing in the morning. I will read more in the evenings and watch less stupid T.V. Just making this plan makes me feel better.

These steps to avoid a downward spiral feel healthy. It’s never good to get psychologically stuck. But part of me is wondering if my desire to avoid the darkness is a desire to avoid life itself.

Into my wondering a new book arrives; a book of poetry by a rabbi I recently met. In Waiting to Unfold, Rachel Barenblat has written a poem each week of her son’s first year of life. I got wrapped up in this book immediately. Barenblat’s writing is clear and honest, returning me poem by poem to the first year of my son’s life. I appreciate how she captures the beauty of her first moments as a mother. I appreciate more how she captures the pain, the exhaustion, the post-partum depression. Each week’s poem is new; a multidimensional, complicated mix of awe, joy, exhaustion, grief, amazement, mystery and change. Barenblat’s ability to convey the undulating highs and lows, emotional chaos, and heightened nature of new life makes for one great year of poetry.

Out of Barenblat’s dark moments poetry was birthed—poetry that spoke to, resonated with, and held deep meaning for this reader. So even though there are experiences of life that I am impatient to see pass—like this time, here, at the end of the summer—and experiences of life that I want to linger—like sneaking into my children’s bedrooms at night to risk waking them with too many kisses—all of life, all experience holds potential and promise. So perhaps I need to simply hold each moment, like a newborn baby holds bottle or breast, and drink deeply of all life offers.

 

 

[Feature Image: David Precious]

 

 

 

 

 

 

I find you spiritually attractive.

2708943201_d085338809_oI recently told a male rabbi about my age that I find him spiritually attractive. Actually, I didn’t tell him. I posted it to his Facebook page. Immediately before adding this message to his feed, though, I hesitated over the following inner monologue:

Is this creepy? Am I over-complimenting? Will this be misconstrued as some sort of strange clergy come on? Should I run this by my husband?

I was in the mood to be bold, though. I wanted to share this compliment because it was true! I hit POST.

Then, I spent the next few hours scrolling, repeatedly (some may say obsessively) through my Facebook feed. I watched my comment linger and hang at the end of his post without one person validating it by hitting the cherished “Like.” Uh oh. I thought to myself in a hot flash of regret.  Maybe I need to explain.

So what makes a person spiritually attractive? Well, for me, a spiritually attractive person manifests a quiet confidence. He doesn’t need to be the center of attention and would never put himself there, but others do because they want what he has. She gives off the sense (or maybe even the scent) that she is at peace within, she is comfortable in her own skin, and this translates into people feeling comfortable and at peace in her presence. He owns his wisdom that he communicates by the way he moves through the world. It’s a kind of charisma, but it’s NOT about her. In fact, it clearly comes from something / someone wholly other than her. All the spiritual greats have it.

Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Hahn, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Luther King, Jr, Dorothy Day and Mother Theresa all come to mind as people who possessed this quality—people who we could not get enough of because they had that special spiritual something. But even us “ordinary folks” can have our moments.

About a month ago I wrote a post about feeling magnetic through the practice of meditation. Here at my college, I’ve been leading a meditation group on Fridays at 4:00pm for the past three years. The group never really took off, though, until this year when I became serious about my own practice. It fascinates me how the more I meditate, the more magnetic I feel, attracting ten to fifteen college students every Friday to this time of attentive stillness.

There are a number of religious groups here on my college campus clamoring for the attention of generation “None” (a.k.a. no designated religious affiliation.) These groups seek to attract students through all kinds of methods: invitations to free ice cream socials, volleyball tournaments, camps and retreats; miniature New Testaments pressed in students’ hands as they enter or exit the dining hall; adults who dress and act as if they are eighteen. Honestly, I’ve tried a few of these approaches myself—it’s hard not to believe that free stuff wins in such a consumer driven culture. How good for me to remember, then, that a deepening, personal meditation practice is attractive food for the hungry. Perhaps it is the spiritual authenticity of the practice; the understanding that it flows from my own time of ‘mind-wrestling’ on the mat, that others feel like they can trust.

I felt this way when I met this rabbi—he was spiritually authentic; a person whose experience I felt I could trust. He sought me out later, by the way, to say thank you for my complimentary post.  I was so relieved.  I was also grateful for his ability to receive and own a genuine compliment–another trait of the spiritually attractive to which we all might aspire.

 

[Feature Image: Bill Selak]

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing to Say: Master Class with Marie Howe

0001-37193920“We have nothing to say.” This was how Marie Howe began her Master Class at the writing conference I am attending this week. Her point was that words come to us, words write us, if we can open ourselves to receiving them. Marie, in her kind, encouraging manner, was determined to teach us something she believed we could all do—radical receptivity. “It’s kind of a relief,” she continued, “to know that you have nothing to say. Because it means you don’t have to be smart or interesting, or holy, or high. You just have to wait and see what comes out of your pen. Just pay attention and let go.”

When my favorite poet told me I had nothing to say, I’ll admit, it was kind of a blow. I mean, my blog is called Something to Say. But I received her point well because my process involves writing myself into what I think. I, oftentimes, have no idea what I am writing about until draft after draft has been scribbled off and I finally discover where the effort is leading me. “Look for the energy in your writing,” advised Marie. “Don’t look for ideas. Run your hand over the page. Where is the heat?” The whole process is, of course, incredibly spiritual.

She had us writing during most of the class. You could easily do the exercises on your own. Free write for two to three minutes on the following prompts:

I could not tell

I could not tell

Today I saw

Today I heard

From what you have written in these prompts, pull out the words and phrases that contain the most energy, the most heat, the most interesting combination of words and sounds. Then rearrange them on a separate sheet of paper. If you’re not surprised by what is pieced together, do it again.

Here are the words I received through this exercise:

I could not tell what my heart wants or needs

or how I feel without her beside me

voices of frustration, my inability to share

I had made for myself and filled my own cup

how could she stop

[adapted feature image: Darren Hester ]

Mindfulness Meditation: There’s An App for That

14707168819_e6c1bd0e70_zI’ve recently heard about a new genre of “apps” that are being developed to provide “digital therapy,” or relief from all the stress and distraction caused by… all those other apps. Yeah, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’ve found the best therapy for my overworked, distracted, and oftentimes anxious mind, is to get away from anything with a glowing screen.

But recently, (on an eight hour drive to Northern Michigan with my family) I had the luxury of reading a whole article in the New Yorker on mindfulness meditation, and on one meditation guru in particular, Andy Puddicombe. The article bills Puddicombe, as a “mindfulness guru for the tech set.” Based in Venice Beach, California (around the corner from Google) Puddicombe is the developer of Headspace, an iPhone app that teaches meditation and mindfulness techniques.

Since I have been studying and practicing mindfulness meditation for a few years now, I initially eyed this “techie” version with suspicion. Is this the real thing, I thought to myself? Or some watered down version, for Google executives and Silicon Valley types.

As I read, though, I was pleasantly surprised. It turns out Andy Puddicombe, a forty-two-year old from London, was trained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk. After a series of life traumas in his young adult years, Puddicombe left college and lived for ten years in Buddhist monasteries in Nepal, India, and Burma, where he became a monk in the Theravadan tradition.

After years of sitting, the article describes, Puddicombe moved to California where he could surf (a sport enhanced by mindfulness) and he developed Headspace as a tool that would make meditation more accessible to the “harried strivers” of today’s contemporary world. According to the New Yorker:

He translated Sanskrit and Tibetan terms into English, and eliminated some of the trippier exercises, like ‘visualizing bright white lights.’ In the monastery, an hour of meditation was considered a brief session, but that didn’t fly with Puddicombe’s clients. ‘I realized early on that it had to feel manageable,’ he said. He set about condensing the exercises into short chunks: twenty or even ten minutes.

Overall, the article was excellent. It not only described the growing mindfulness movement and the way scientists are tracking the positive effects of meditation, but it even summarized Buddhism and the history of meditation in India, dating back to before the Buddha was born in 480 B.C.

So I decided to check Headspace out for myself. I downloaded the app and have been working through a free ten day trial of guided meditations.

My overall impression is that this is a good resource for those new to meditation. Puddicombe is a great guide and teacher, his voice (with its endearing British accent) is gentle, positive and easy to listen to. There are some cute animations that really help you understand the meditation techniques in contemporary terms. And although, Puddicombe never uses Sanskrit, Tibetan, or Buddhist language, he obviously understands the tradition and I appreciate how he has translated it for us modern day folks.

My only small critique would be that the ten minute sessions Puddicombe uses are too short to really feel the benefits of meditation. Most practitioners insist on at least 20 minutes. But again, it’s a good start. And I think it would be hard to convince the Google executive to take more than ten minutes to try this contemplative practice. Also, while listening to Puddicombe’s voice guiding me through the session, I oftentimes wanted more silence. I’ve enjoyed my sitting practice of meditating in silence, moving through my prayer beads, for twenty minutes. I feel like I get to know my own mind better this way. But again, Puddicombe’s guided version is definitely worth it. I’ve appreciated the variety it has added to my practice and I will probably even subscribe to Headspace (it’s $13.00 a month) to see what else he offers.

Spirit Waking in Michigan

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For the past three summers, we have spent a week camping at Interlochen State Park in Northern Michigan. Opened in 1917, this is the oldest State Park in Michigan and, in my mind, the most beautiful. The sites are extremely well-maintained, the bathrooms have recently been renovated (and are cleaned daily!) and–the best part–every night you can hike an easy trail over to the Interlochen Music Camp to hear some incredible performances and buy ice cream at the Melody Freeze. My parents took me camping here when I was a child. It was a favorite memory that I hoped to recreate for my children.

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We just returned from this summer’s trip and I can honestly say I love everything about this place:

I love the slap of the camp store’s screen door behind my two wild-haired towheads, giddy over the superman ice cream cones dripping in their hands, a ring pop in their pocket, and maple syrup still smeared on their cheeks from morning pancakes with Pipa. (My parents camp with us!)

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I love the smells of campfire smoke, pine sap, bug spray, sunblock, iron-tinted water, and Fells Nap soap that washes away swimmer’s itch as well as all the end-of-the day grime.

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I love bugs trapped in plastic water bottles, bike rides and scavenger hunts, running full-speed down the Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes, and no Wi-Fi.

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I love how the wind shuffles and shifts the tops of the white oaks, silver maples, and white pines–a canopy of green that shelters us from the sun and the heaviest drops of rain.

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I love the raccoon, captured, in the beam of our flashlight, pillaging our neighbor’s trash. Chipmunks and black squirrels whose maniacal chirps echo through the woods. A pair of woodpeckers who wake us up at dawn, teaching their young how to jackhammer the trees for food.

(No critters cooperated for the camera.)

Even the rain, I love, because it forces us inside to play board games and put together puzzles. The drops sound like tiny pebbles on the fiberglass roof of our pop-up camper.

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The natural beauty of this place, as well as the freedom to be naturally me (no mascara, no frills, and no photographs) is exactly what I need this time of the year.

I recently read an interview of the poet, Derek Walcott, who describes why he wakes up at half-past three in his Caribbean home to write.

“That hour,” says Walcott, “that whole time of day, is wonderful in the Caribbean. I love the cool darkness and the joy and splendor of the sunrise coming up. I guess I would say, especially in the location of where I am, the early dark and the sunrise, and being up with the coffee and with whatever you’re working on, is a very ritualistic thing. I’d even go further and say it’s a religious thing. It has its instruments and its surroundings. And you can feel your own spirit waking.”

I’m sure we all have our places of “spirit waking.” Interlochen is mine. Part of the reason, I’m sure, is because this place is so connected to my childhood. But, beneath those trees, taking in those sounds and smells, observing my children having so much fun in nature, I feel my spirit waking. Only here do I begin to let loose the chords of work stress that entangle me and stop checking my email so obsessively. It is a religious thing. A summer ritual for which I am extremely grateful.

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Iowa City Inspiration

I just returned from a quick overnight trip to Iowa City.  There are many things I love about this city.  Like….

People playing outside pianos.

People playing outside pianos.

Children frolicking in fountains.

Children frolicking in fountains.

Inspiring Art Everywhere

Inspiring Art Everywhere

Great Food! Yum!

Great Food! Yum!

But the real reason I return to Iowa City every summer is the way it inspires my writing.  Today I attended a free lecture by Juliet Patterson, “Alternative Fuel Sources: Powering the Non-narrative Essay.”  I was interested in the topic since my sermons and writing are typically narrative driven.  What other tools might I use to drive an essay or a message?

Patterson encouraged us to capitalize on our organic strengths as writers.  She’s not a storyteller.  She’s a lyric poet.  So she’s more comfortable describing scenes in specific detail and focusing on the cadence of her words than on a particular narrative. The risk of writing like this–writing a lyric essay–is that it can be lifeless is there is no drama, arc or plot.  (I can think of a lot of lifeless sermons I’ve heard that fit this description.)  You have to build a scaffolding for what you’re writing.  Oftentimes that comes through the plot of a narrative, but Patterson suggested other alternatives such as images, a refrain (a repeated line or two to return to throughout the piece to ground the reader), or connecting small, seemingly disparate details, into a larger context of meaning.

To understand this way of driving a piece of prose, it was helpful to read the examples Patterson used in the lecture.  Here’s a picture of my notes on two excerpts she discussed.

Alternative Fuel Sources / Patterson 2015 Iowa Summer Writing Festival

Alternative Fuel Sources / Patterson
2015 Iowa Summer Writing Festival

The first excerpt by Joni Tevis uses the image of water / rain to create drama.   The song, “When the Levee Breaks,” provides the structure.  Tevis did a lot of research for this piece, which began (we learned) as a lifeless essay.  But the more research she did the more details, images, and ideas started to connect which made the piece come alive.

The second excerpt by John D’Agata’s “About a Mountain” really struck me.  It uses a refrain, “The life span of” to ground the reader.  But what is so stunning about this piece is about how it creates this aura of slippery-ness here.  Everything is slippery.  Everything slips away.  Even the sentences get shorter as the piece progresses.  D’Agata intentionally creates this aura of slippery-ness before introducing the subject of the book; nuclear waste.  A substance that does not slip away.  Ever.   This is a stunning piece of prose that doesn’t need a narrative to drive it.

After the lecture I went straight to the bookstore and bought two books highlighted by Patterson, “About a Mountain” by John D’Agata and “Ongoingness: The End of a Diary” by Sarah Manguso that I hope to dig into this summer. Inspiration abounds in Iowa City!

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“About a Mountain” “Ongoingness: The End of a Diary” and a fun book about farts for my 8 year old.