Beekeeping and Blessings

August 19, 2011

 

 

There are things I will miss about Holy Wisdom when I leave here. I will miss the cardinals that sing the Liturgy of the Hours back and forth to each other in the pines as I rinse lettuce in the Upper garden.I will miss pulling out the horsetails from the roof garden and hearing Paul talk about his love of the Prairie. I will miss the pioneer cameraderie that has developed among the women I stay with, the shared jokes and laughter.  I will miss the order and the rhythm of my days here-the mystic feeling of the timeless tasks we have engaged in…gardening,tending an orchard,cooking,preparing food,protecting the land,singing and sharing with one another. I will miss the security of the sisters’ life experience to guide me  and the soothing presence of the monastery building itself. But it is time to go home. Every experience ends and another begins. This will end and I will go home for one last wonderful month of barbeques and beer gardens, of nieces and nephews running through the sprinkler and church carnivals …and then it’s off to Africa and the “Unknowing” will envelope me yet again.

This last week we have had the good fortune to encounter the monastery beekeeper, Jean. We watched from the safe distance of her truck as she “split a hive”. We stood there, rapt, watching her, clothes in a hat and protective clothing(but no gloves) as she pulled out panels of comb,cells, and what seemed like a million bees from the larger hive.She noticed us after a time and gave us an impromptu lesson in beekeeping as she modeled the now-glass enclosed “starter hive”.The bees, she explained to us later, know instinctively when it is time to split-to go off and form a new hive with a new queen. She modeled the “starter hive” now encased in glass for us and pointed out the new Queen developing, which bees were doing what and how they were going about cleaning their cells, feeding the new bees, and communicating furiously to other bees through terpischorean rhythms. Bees are curious in that for them, community is the only way they can live, there is no such thing as a single bee. A bee without community is a dead bee, it cannot live or survive for even a short time without a hive, a place to go back to where there is food and warmth and shelter and other bees. No bee is an island. In that way, they are as unlike a human being as anything ever can be. Bees don’t seem to have the luxury or the hubris to assume they can be alright without others of their kind. They know it just doesn’t work like that. Bees need each other.I don’t think it-being apart from one another- works that way for us either, as much as we might try to trick ourselves into believing it can or does. We all have known that one person who’s lived alone or been alone so long they’ve gotten a little strange. Why are we like that? Why do we keep trying to convince ourselves we don’t need each other? Where is the virtue in eschewing a hive of our own? A place where we belong, where we fit in and where we are cared for? A place where we truly feel useful,comfortable,and happy doing what we know best? Rugged individualism may work for the odd few…but I’ll take hive-dwelling. And not the hive-dwelling of conformity or automaton-like behavior…not like that. But the hive-dwelling of community, a place for everything and everyone.A place where we really see each other and we really interact with the benefit of all of us in mind.

The last day at the monastery we received a blessing from all the members of the community. Standing at the large, granite baptismal font, we were given a prayer and a wish for good things for our future, for love and wisdom to follow us in our life’s journey. It was a small thing, this blessing, taking all of 15 minutes. I felt slightly embarrassed and sheepish and awed all at once. But it was no small thing to have people who have only known you a month, who have spent their whole lives working for the good of all people, and searching for that same goodness in others…it is no small thing to be blessed by them. That evening Matt would pick me up from the fire pit it where we women were toasting our last night at the monastery with s’mores. I would be overjoyed to see him and ready to leave Holy Wisdom. Did I find God there, on the Prairie? Did I come away with “the Knowing” I was searching for? Did God and I make up? The answers are maybe,a little, and yes. For all three questions.I don’t know what God is but like Justice Stewart said about Obscenity, ‘I know it when I see it”. So yes, God was on the Prairie. And God is also in my weiner dog doing the curly shuffle on the carpet after his bath, and was in my grandmother’s hands and  is in my boyfriend’s kind face. And God is in me, even if I don’t recognize it. And the “Knowing”? I guess I may have to accept it as a lifelong quest. Like “The Knights of the Round Table” I may be on a journey that has no end looking for something that I only know exists by a hunch and a collection of  stories and that I cannot prove. I will have to accept that if I am to enjoy the view and face the challenges with strength. Go an I have made up, definitely. Although it’s still in the beginning stages, we have reformed our friendship. I look forward to getting to know God better and to opening myself up more to God. Fair is fair.

While I have been at Holy Wisdom I have been listening to a collection of interviews from NPR, “Faith, Reason, and Doubt” hosted by Terry Gross. The interviews cover every religious topic and feature everyone from an ex-orthodox Jew turned humorist Shalom Auslander, to John Hagee, one of the foremost “End Times” preachers of our times, to Frances Collins who works on the Human Genome Project, and Karen Armstrong, an ex-catholic nun and famous historian. The interviews are funny, passionate,sometimes political, always interesting. What struck me as particularly poignant was the imagery people used to describe God and their relationship to God. So many of the more conservative interviews described God as a parent, alternately punitive and benevolent depending on or actions. The image that came to my mind over and over again listening to them was that of a God being a parent who has one child on their lap getting cuddles with another child trying to push that child off so they can then sit on the same lap and get the cuddles for themselves. And the idea that the Universal Good at the Heart of the Universe could ever be punishing, could ever be exclusionist, seemed so sad. I have no children but I do know from talking to parents…if you want to use that metaphor…there is always Love. And there is more than enough for everyone and it will never run out and it will never be conditional.That is what has always existed and will always exist and maybe we will never know who or what or where it comes from.

Love is timeless and unending and constant and loyal. It exists for us to share with each other, where it comes from, we may never know.”Why do you love me?” How many of us have asked someone that very question in the depths of our own misery or anger? Is there an answer to that when you love someone? If it is a child is the answer, ‘Because you came from me? Because you are like me?” If it is a lover, is it “Because you are a part of me? Because you have witnessed my life with me?” Is there an answer? And is it ever simple? Is it “Because Nature dictates a bond?” or “Biology” or “Hormones”? Does it matter why we love? Or does it only matter that we do love? It is the greatest gift, this gift of loving another. Taking the love we are born to give and communicating it to another human being. It is what we are here for, what we search for all our lives, hat we hold most dear.That is what I have taken from my time here at Holy Wisdom Monastery.And I will take it with me wherever I go.That is God. And That is the Knowing.

Resilience

August 19, 2011

 

 

“Resilience” is the topic of the class we take at Holy Wisdom 3 days a week. The class, with the participation of Sister Lynne, is led by a woman who has made a special study of this topic in her life. The class is held after we have spent a couple of hours usually doing outdoor work in the hot sun. It is a welcome respite, with its cool air conditioning and a pitcher of water in the center of  table flanked by whatever baked good our teacher is proffering that class time. Our teacher, Donna, is an excellent baker, a sailing enthusiast, and a poet. She is also a survivor of great personal tragedy and I can imagine no one better to lead our little group through our study than someone like her. The syllabus of this class is very different from our class on Benedictine spirituality. One is driven by our relationship to God, the Universe, and what it takes to live in community with others in peace and harmony. The other is about our relationship to God, the Universe, and what it takes to live in community with ourselves, in peace and harmony. The same and yet different focuses, both important and both designed , the end product in mind, to help us to know ourselves better while also getting to know the “other” better. So then, what exactly is “Resilience” and why is it so important?  Resilience is the ability to bounce back, the quality that makes us able to stand up to the challenges we face in life and keep standing, even after those challenges have rolled over us like a bulldozer operated by a pro wrestler. Like water, being resilient, helps us to go around and under and through. To find the little cracks, the niches, the opportunities, to keep going long after many others in similar circumstances have given up exhausted and tapped out or resigned themselves to Fate or Destiny. Resilience is the ability to summon that “other you”, that stronger you, to call forth that strong force within yourself an let it loose upon your world. Resilience is “Towanda: Queen of the Amazons”.

The funny thing about Resilience is that it is a relative term. Some people have a remarkable amount of resilience and nothing and no one seems to get them or keep them down. To illustrate this, I am going to use one of my favorite books/movies because it is the first thing that springs to mind when I think about the characterization of this topic. Think of  Scarlett O’Hara or Rhett Butlers’ characters from ‘Gone with the Wind”. War, famine,disease, those two were like a Mack truck. Whatever pins Life set up for them, they knocked them down. Some people are resilient in the face of certain things but not others. Ashley Wilkes’ character was not  particularly resilient. In the beginning of the movie we see him as a pillar of cool calm and reserve, a paragon of clear-headedness, logic, and reason. But once the Civil War took its toll on the South and Ashley saw Life and Community as he knew it disappear, he had a hard time surviving in the Reconstructionist South and leaned on other, stronger people for support. With their help, Ashley is able to make his way in the world running a successful business. Finally, there are some who are not resilient at all-for them, all that is needed to knock them down is just one big wave and its over for them, they never seem to be able to stand up again. Once again, I use the “Gone With The Wind” metaphor. Scarlett’s father Gerald is so overcome with the devastation wrought on his way of life as a result of the Civil War, he succumbs to mental illness and death. One of my favorite reads is “Man’s Search for Meaning”by Viktor Frankl. A psychoanalyst and Nazi death camp survivor, Dr. Frankl spent his life, post-Holocaust studying the “x-factor” and its absence or presence in people’s lives. In his books he cites instances where two people exposed to the same treatment in the camps, who are from the same relative backgrounds, could have such different responses to stressors? So much so that one person may refuse to eat or shower,will refuse to do what he must to keep himself free of disease, essentially abandoning himself to death, hopeless in the face of the situation while the other doggedly attempts to live his life in the camps with a sense of normalcy believing he will eventually be released or escape and if not, then he will at least die with his dignity. What is the great difference between these two people? What allows us to go on in the midst of great suffering? How is it that some people become overwhelmed by challenges other people are able to stand up against?

Community support, Family and Friends, Education and Resources…people that study this as a science say that all these factors must be present in order for a person to be truly Resilient. But then there is still that something called an “x” factor, an outlier, something that can’t be placed. People with the “x factor” tend to be highly resilient in spite of the lack of or total abscence  many of these qualifiers. In other words “‘If this’ does not add up to ‘then this'” for these certain people. They seem to be naturally Resilient. A conundrum indeed. here at Holy Wisdom, in this small room, flanked on each side by strong women eating linzertorte and listening to Donna’s soothing yet clipped tones describing the day’s topics, I wonder how and in what ways we have different levels of resilience. In the time we have spent talking, sharing, doing writing exercises,and reading articles about the topic, I cannot say with all certainty that I could ever know the level of resilience of my classmates or of my teacher. All things being equal we have all cried in class already and even though I am always askance at  educational endeavors that incorporate what I would call “flower-child language”, I am starting to warm up to the workings of the class. All things being considered, appearances are deceiving and I have seen too much already in my life that leads me to not make the foolish error of assuming that a naturally shy or delicate person would be less resilient than someone more bombastic or formidable. We are all capable of great feats of strength in our life’s journeys. In my life I have seen an emotionally fragile woman take care of her dying husband and defend his interests with all the furor of a Medea. And I have been surprised and shocked to see a woman I had thought strong enough to move mountains, crumple under the stresses of parenting her newborn. When I was going through my divorce I felt like for the first time I understood when someone said they felt like their heart was breaking-a physical pin, a numbness…and after a while a choice had to be made. One of my favorite quotes from Fried Green Tomatoes, “A heart may be broken, but it goes on beating just the same.” I had to keep going, even if I didn’t know where I was going to.Do any of us know what our thresholds are? Can any of us ever truly know what we can take until it is asked of us? How strong a load can I carry, how great a burden would I be able to bear? How Resilient am I, really?

I want to believe in the saying that “God never gives us a burden we are too weak to carry.” but sometimes I get angry at the Universe for the inequity with which these burdens are distributed. If Resilience is common to some and not others, if it is issue or situation dependent, then I wonder if it is a choice for some people, Resilience. I can identify with the person who says, consciously or unconsciously, ‘I don’t want to be Resilient. I want to wallow in the more and muck of my divorce or the death of my child or the loss of my job. I want people to feel sorry for me and bring me casseroles. I want to not shower or change my clothes for a few days and eat nothing but HoHo’s and beer.”  Or even, “No point on keeping going with this whole life thing now that (fill in the blank) happened. Time to check out.” Yeah I can identify with that. But then, is there a responsibility factor in that “x-factor”, maybe? Is the difference between the person who is Resilient and the person who is not…is he difference…responsibility? Towards life, towards the children that still live, the grieving spouse, responsibility to one’s self? Is that the “x-factor”? Are the people who are naturally more Resilient imbued with a greater understanding of responsibility towards something bigger than themselves? Are they determined, that even in the midst of their poverty, their grief, their loss, their pain…are they determined to keep putting one metaphorical foot in front of the other no matter what? Is it that simple?  I wonder.

 

 

 

 

 

Invasives

August 11, 2011

 

 

It’s odd how there are things you can go through your whole life not thinking about. Like “invasive plant species”. I can honestly say I do not recall there ever being a time in my life I have ever truly thought about that term. Here, at Holy Wisdom, it has become a regular part of my vocabulary. Sometimes we shorten it to just ‘Invasives”. An invasive plant is, to put it subjectively, ‘a plant growing where it doesn’t belong”. There are no ‘good plants” or “bad plants” here at Holy Wisdom. All plants are looked at as performing some sort of function. No judgements and no preferential value assigned. The humble dandelion and the sunflower are on equal ground here at the monastery. As long as they respect the plants they share the space with. We call the “plant removal” we do in the garden at Holy Wisdom ‘weeding” because it is a catch-all term. What we’re really doing is “strategic plant reduction,removal, and relocation with composting as a side benefit”.

Weeding and pruning are necessary things when one is trying to grow plants for food. See, for someone like me who came to the monastery knowing next to nothing about gardening and can’t tell one plant from the next, weeding seems like little more than just tidying the rows and making everything look nice and neat. In fact there is more to it than that. When invasive plants insinuate themselves in and around those plants you mean to raise for food, problems arise. Invasive plants end to wrap themselves around the food plants, choking their root or preventing them from getting optimal sun and water. The invasive plants leach essential moisture and nutrients from the surrounding ground and deprive your food plant of getting what it needs. It’s the difference between weeding out invasives and getting beets as big as baseballs  or not weeding and getting beets the size of golf balls. If you let the weeding go entirely or its a particularly psychopathic weed choking the row, it can kill the plants entirely. Last week myself and the other volunteers led a Navy Seal style rescue mission to liberate some shallots from a totalitarian mass of wild grasses. It’s the same deal with the orchard and the Prairie. We prune the pear and apple trees to give the lower branches more light and air flow, we check for Japanese beetle infestation and signs of disease.  On the Prairie we are given long handled  shovels with small, narrow heads for digging under the taproots of thistles, Queen Anne’s lace, and burdock. Each shovel has a small platform down by the area where the head meets the handle. On more than one occasion the ground is so dry we have to stand on the platform in order to get the shovel head to break ground under the root so we can rip it out. Sometimes it takes more than one person to wrench out a particularly recalcitrant plant. And it’s not that the plants we are removing are “bad plants”-more often its that they are non-native species, plants imported to the Prairie through homesickness or inadvertently through  ride on someone’s cuffs, they get into the Prairie and prevent the indigenous plants from achieving optimal growth. Some of the plants we remove are pretty, some are even edible. In their own environment they are appreciated and loved and fit into the landscape…but not here at Holy Wisdom. Here they are competitive and are not naturally inclined to work with the other plants to achieve optimal growth for everyone so they must be removed and resigned to the compost pile.

The week after that I delighted in digging potatoes . Sister Lynne showed us how to identify when the potato plants were ready for harvesting. The top of the plant has to look dead before ou can feel free to move in for the root(the potato). You then dig in at one end of the plant with the  pitchfork , careful to not spear any of the potatoes lying beneath.Then once we’d turned the soil, we’d dig with our hands for the golden mounds just under the surface. Most were good, large and golden-brown in color, good looking potatoes. I felt like I was digging for pirate treasure, it was like a fun game until I dug two plants in a  row where the majority of the potatoes were ruined. Some had rotted into slime, and some had been exposed to too much light from the top of had been chewed by animals. And then a strange sort of understanding swept over me as I stood there wiping sweat off my forehead and tossed the slimy and rotten globes into the Prairie for the raccoons. This was serious stuff. If this was all I had to feed my family, those two mostly rotted potato plants…that would not have been good. I understood for the first time, something of what the rest of the world lives like. Hand to mouth, subsistence farming,their ability to eat dependent on their ability to learn and grow their own food. I am very blessed to have never been hungry, to never have to scrabble in the dirt to feed my children or to have my heart seize with panic or dread the death of two potato plants. At Holy Wisdom , after two weeks, I am quickly learning the difference between the top of a carrot and the top of a weed next to the carrot. It’s important that I learn this because if I pull out a good vegetable by mistake, it’s not always possible to replant it without damaging the output. Sometimes, like with the onions, if I accidentally pull one I can just place it back in the dirt, cover it and be on my way. But sometimes  if I pullout the plant, I have killed it and there is nothing I can do to fix it at that point. I find myself thinking of this work in the garden from the perspective of someone to does subsistence farming. You have to be smart to do this kind of work everyday. Someone who lives by the food they produce can’t afford to make those kinds of mistakes. If they do, they will have less food to eat. So they learn quickly.

Weeding, pruning,digging are time-consuming, never-ending activities and as I do them I find myself relating the activity to my everyday life and the challenges I face as a person, my faults and weaknesses, the qualities in myself I wish were more developed, the good stuff about myself I don’t acknowledge or downplay. Thoughts come to me in waves: Am I truly grateful for what I have? Do I really realize how blessed I really am? I suppose one could view the task of removing invasive species as an internal one as well. I know I definitely have those “invasives” or “weeds” or “rot” that I wish more often than not, I could rip out or cut out and compost or at least identify in enough time to do some damage-control. Qualities in ourselves that if we could, we would prefer not to entertain as a part of our person. Sometimes we don’t even know how they got to be a part of us or why we let them get as big as we do. We just know them as part of the landscape, as it were. Unfortunately, if they are left too long, then like Queen Anne’s lace, and wild grass, and the Japanese beetles, they will destroy the good things about ourselves little by little. You have to be willing to do the work, to grow and learn everyday, to probe the parts of yourself that are unfamiliar to you in order to reap the benefit of the good stuff. You have to ask the hard questions and go in knowing there might be unpleasant things like squash bugs and hornets you’ll have to get through. So…that begs the questions of , “What weeds do I let take over my own psyche? How do I keep the negative thoughts from crippling me and choking off what is good about myself? What can I do so that the good parts of me continue to be better and are able to get what they need? How can one learn quickly which qualities about oneself are good and worthy of development in time to help them flourish? How can I appreciate myself better and be grateful for what I have in my life and how it had come to me? Conversely how does one learn which qualities are damaging in time to stop them from taking over and ruining other relationships? Do I keep working at it, even when half of what I plant won’t turn out the way I expected? How do I prune in my own life? How do I judge when I have become too concerned about things that are fundamentally damaging to my spirit? How do I cut the branches that are obstructing my goals for my authentic self?” So many questions. The answers, like the food from the garden, will hopefully, come in time.

 

 

 

 

 

Missing my Life

August 10, 2011

Our days at the Monastery lasted from 630 in the morning to 630 in the evening Monday through Friday. Technically we had free time to do whatever and to come and go as we pleased from 630 onwards until bedtime. Frequently,after a day filled with meditation,praying,working, and studying there was little we felt inclined to do except recline. After the last dishes were put away from the dinner service, I would often retire to the computer room to write my blog while the other girls went walking on the trails or spent time in the library. The first weekend I had spent at Holy Wisdom by myself, writing,exploring,writing,reading. It felt good to have that time to just devote to some of the things I love the best. The second weekend, the boyfriend drove the 3 hours up from Chicago after work that Friday night to visit me. My friends Elizabeth and Marcia, who lived in Madison, picked me up from the monastery after dinner and drove me to their place to hang out while we waited for Matt. While being apart from Matt was easier than I had thought it would be, I was surprised at how differently I missed him. In the past when I had experienced a separation from someone I’d been in a relationship with it had been alternately agonizing and/or liberating depending on how the relationship was going when we had separated. When I saw Matt on the doorstep of my friend house that Friday night, I felt relief. I was surprised to feel a sense of comfort by his very presence. Similar to the way I had always felt when arriving at my grandmother’s after a long time away in Europe or college. Comfort and Relief enveloped me and it was all I could do to not embarrass him in front of our friends with the biggest and longest hug ever. We spent the weekend canoeing on Lake Wingra, visiting the Mustard Museum, and eating enough cheese curds to choke a horse. I popped in and out of the monastery all weekend for meals and prayers  and services in keeping with the monastic rhythm of life while Matt participated in what he could and waited out what he couldn’t. But when we had time to ourselves, mostly we talked. Matt had become my best friend in the two years I’d known him and I poured out all my new experiences at Holy Wisdom on him, anxious to hear his opinions on my blog, and desperate for news of home and the gossip of our friends and family. Saying goodbye that Sunday evening was not a hardship. as Matt urged me to continue to wring every last drop out of this experience and to really embrace it knowing it would only come once and I would be home before I knew it.

The next week went by in a flurry of activity and every morning I felt happy and god about my time at Holy Wisdom. IO was convinced it had been a much needed break for me and that I would return to Chicago well-rested and with a more peaceful outlook. That last weekend, I spent with the other girls in the program popping in and out of Madison enjoying concerts on the Capitol Square, swimming,the restaurant scene, and yet another visit to the amazing Mustard Museum. That Sunday we went to lunch at a celebrated Madison restaurant devoted to local Wisconsin fare and something startling happened to me as I settled into my chair. I became overwhelmed by the desire to be a part of city life again. I seemed to see everything and everyone around me in stark clarity at that moment. I missed it. I missed the noise and the people and the smells and…well, everything. I missed Chicago.

I missed the screech of  the Blue Line “El” and big ridiculous low-rider cars and the airplanes coming in for landings at O’Hare and Midway. I missed the way the rainstorms look over the Lake andt he way the alley smell in summer. I missed hearing Russian and Polish and Spanish on my way to work. I missed work with its sweaty polyester atmosphere, trays clattering, and people shouting. I missed my apartment with the living room fan that wobbled too much and the small kitchen with no counter space. I missed flyers stuck to streetlamps and the lines ta my favorite coffee shop and the whoosh sound of the bus as it takes off from the stop.I missed the way you can see the skyline from the Diversey Brown line stop. I missed my nieces and nephews playing with their toys on my parents front lawn. I missed the Corner Bar with it’s dogs on the floor and Derek the bartender who didn’t mind if we got pizza delivered to the bar. I missed counting the church spires as i rode along the Kennedy and Stevenson expressway. I missed late night walks with Matt and Barkley the weiner dog. I missed the tamale guy who came around on Friday nights at the Green Eye to sell cheese tamales to hungry hipsters for cheap. I missed my parents talking about my father’s colon health over dinner and my boyfriend’s dad bringing back my favorite martini ingredients from a shopping trip while I helped his mom make dinner in the kitchen. I missed Life. More specifically, I missed MY life. The life I knew, the one I’d always known and been comfortable in. I missed knwoing what was next and how it might always be and where I would fit into it.

There is truth is saying we have a place in our own history, in our own story and the story of the people who’s lives we touch. When you are young you hear of the way other people live their lives and if it’s more exciting than yours you think, “Oh, I wish I had their life.”  I used to wish I had grown up on a ranch in Wyoming or on the beach in Hawaii like some of my friends. I would wish for the rhythm of their days as they learned to surf at 3 or ride a horse at 4. I would imagine how exciting it would have been to have grown up with a jet-setting father or a politician mother and wonder how I would have been different if I had. I suppose its natural for us all to wonder, “What might have been.” After spending time at Holy Wisdom the past three weeks, I knew without a doubt that my story was not written in county life or in monastery life. At least not this part. I had enjoyed those three weeks immensely and learned so much that I would take with me and apply in my later life. I would also enjoy the last week, savoring the experience and treasuring the knowledge of prayer,meditation,community,farming and gardening that I had been privileged to be a part of.  In allowing me a space in their VIC program the women of Holy Wisdom Monastery had allowed me to step outside myself for a time and to choose a life, even for a short while, that I was not born to. Many times in the past few weeks I had felt like Goldie Hawn in ‘Overboard” when she says, “I don’t know how to do any of this stuff and I don’t want to!’. For those that know me, the idea of me getting up at 630am and spending a good part of the day weeding around squash plants or trimming apple trees seems ludicrous. And many times, it was evident that the rhythm of that life at Holy Wisdom was as foreign to me as an Arab prince’s. But I did it and I learned to enjoy it for what it is and what it will always be, a good and fitting place for those who are born to it or who choose to embrace it. I belonged to the life at Holy Wisdom for a time and I would take that time with me back to the life where I did belong and would for the forsee-able future, no matter how far away my life might take me., to Africa or otherwhere’s. Holy Wisdom has been good for me.

But in that moment at the restaurant, homesickness had come upon me like a sudden fever and all I wanted was to go home to that wonderful city of rats as big as small kittens and line cooks that sing love songs to each other in Spanish,and where I can go see a jazz band play at 4am.  My favorite city in the world, built by three generations of my family,loved by them all, and the place where no matter how far I travel,I have been written into Chicago’s story for all my life.

 

Being Good

August 10, 2011

 

People think it’s easy to be a good person. They seem to think it’s the simplest thing in the world to live a good life and be nice to people. Well, it’s not. If it were that easy everyone would be able to do it all the time and we would achieve world peace, an end to hunger and violence, and most of the world’s problems would end. It’s pretty darn difficult, in fact. Even when you try and try, sometimes without meaning to, you can really screw things up. It’s hard to get a good grip on the world sometimes and even harder to get a grip on other people and the situations you find yourself in in your life. The hardest of all is dealing with just yourself. I find I can be my own worst enemy. There are days when I am a total crab and a trial for anyone to be around. There are days when I am needy and clingy and need constant reassurance. There are days when I have to bite my tongue almost in half so as not to tell someone what I really think of them in less-than-ladylike language. On really bad days I can’t even bite my tongue and I just say mean things and think even meaner things. Sarcastic things, cruel things,dismissive things, they just fly out of my mouth with no thought attached to them most of the time. Most of the time they come out in the guise of a joke and there is a part of my brain that believes I am being funny.  I could say I was just being witty…but I’m not so much witty on those days as just plain spiteful and rude. I usually feel terrible right after I say something that ends up hurting someone. But then it’ too late. I’ve hurt them and it’s too late to do anything about it other than apologise. And it’s not always possible to apologise to someone immediately after you’ve said something unkind because they are still smarting from the hurt. Or they are angry with you, which then makes you defensive, and then nothing good comes of any of the exchange. So then you walk away and think about it later and feel terrible and try afterwards to make it up to the person by being extra kind of doing them a  favor. But like feathers released into the air from a pillow…what’s done is done. And those are the days I have the hardest time being me. I so desperately want to be a good and kind person. I want to be worthy of my friendships and the loyalty and trust of the people in my life. I try so hard to respect and honor every person I meet and to try and treat them according to the Golden Rule. But it is overwhelming to me sometimes, when I am hungry or ill-humored or tired or this is a person who is seemingly going out of their way to annoy and upset me…and a snarky voice in the back of my head is urging me on to a thoughtless and rash action or words I will regret as I mull over it in the evening before I go to bed. Being at the Monastery has shown me various parts of my personality, both good and bad. When you are in a  controlled environment for an extended period of time I suppose it is inevitable that these two sides of every person should come to the surface.In our classes on the “Benedictine Rule” every morning, the Sisters have shown me that even if I don’t want to have a conversation with my faults all the time, I at least have to nod at them once in a  while and maybe even take them out for coffee in order to get to know that part of myself in order to be able to better understand all of me. In doing so, I can help myself to a better understanding of all people and hopefully, by that, become a better person.

I know you won’t believe it….but…I have a lot of faults.”The big 3″ as I like to call them are the ones I spend the most time trying to overcome, or at least bully into shape. I have been trying to overcome them since childhood. So far the progress has been steady but minimal. Ready? Okay, here I go.

1. I am super-judgemental: I want everyone to be good and to live up to my standards of character and when they don’t, I get upset with them. No one in my life is exempt from this. Even myself. One time I let it slip that I felt it was a huge lack that my boyfriend spoke no more than one language.

2. I am super-impatient: I want things done right away even to bending the laws of time and space an I often fail to give allowances for tasks done by others if I think I could have done them faster/better. I have been known to expect my friend to meet me at a bar immediately after I hang up the phone calling him. My friend lives a twenty minute walk away.

3. I am super-thoughtless: In the heat of the moment I often fail to see other’s perspectives. I have been horrified to learn after the fact that the things I take for granted between friends are often seen as impositions by others. Like taking my laundry to my sisters house when my washer was broke.Maybe I should have asked her first.

And those are just the biggest faults. For those of you who are enjoying this bout of self-flagellation(ahem, examination) I am also prone to laziness, arrogance,temper,swearing,over-indulgence,shallowness, and crashing stupidity. My mother will agree with all of this and congratulate me for being brave enough to write it down. probably because she is the one who tells me my faults most often. Sometimes apropos of nothing she will just say, “You know what your problem is?” and then launch into it. It’ a good thing my father is more indulgent of us or we might have grown up into neurotics.

The Benedictine Rule focuses on self-improvement and living effectively in community. To be fair, Benedict lived in a monastery. But his ‘Rule”has been used in the formation of many different types of communities where Goodness and Respect are the qualities people want to work on developing. Benedict talk about all sots of subjects that relate to sundry topics such as how people should speak to one another(with utmost respect) or how should one be expected to do less than savory chores(with humility). Benedict, in his writings, shares with us the normal struggles and objections we have both with our own spirits and the spirits of those who surround us. He talks candidly and with great clarity about all the challenges we face in our wish to be good and ‘right” with the ‘Essential Good at the Heart of the Universe”. He teaches us through his Rules that one cannot be expected to govern oneself well in public if one cannot at least try to master oneself in public. Benedict urges us to constantly assess our characters with gentleness but also discipline in mind. To think about the faults of ours that are preventing us from being able to treat each other fairly.To really look at what it is that is driving us to say or do the things we say and do that hurt those we interact with on a regular basis. In my time at Holy Wisdom, I have spent hours now, sitting in class with “The Rule” as we call it, on my lap, my pencil poised, articulating with the group as to what it really means to treat others with grace,humility,respect,kindness, and charity. We all agree it is important, exceedingly necessary,and just the right thing to do. But it is also a scary thing to do. To have to look into your heart every day of your life and probe all your thoughts and feeling in order to make sure there’s not something in there hiding from you which will jump out later to hurt the one wish to treat with loving-kindness, whoever that person may be.Benedict is big on boundaries, I have noticed. He is of the school of Frost-ian thought that believes that “good fences make good neighbors”. Fences are usually thought o structures that keep things out but in ‘The Rule” Benedict enforces certain things in order to keep things in the community. Things like goodness,love,and acceptance. Imagine if we could all learn that. To exercise loving discipline in the formation of our own characters while yet allowing for understanding and grace in regards to our neighbors’ same struggle. I once told the Sister’s, “I’d make a terrible nun. I would never be able to master my faults.”  One of the Sisters started to laugh and putting a hand on my arm she said kindly, ” Oh…it’s been fifty years and I’m still trying.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Books are my friends

August 6, 2011

I love books. They are my friends. So, it was lovely to see so many of my old crowd in the monastery library here at Holy Wisdom. “Oh hi, Dorothy Day! I didn’t know you’d be here?”, “Karen Armstrong! Its’ been too long.” and “Why Thomas Merton, you old dog…where have you been hiding yourself?” There they all are, hanging out on the shelves, identified by their catalog numbers, spines ramrod straight.  I walk through the aisles, brushing my right hand over their wonderful selves in a gesture of camaraderie, recalling all the good times we’ve shared together. The library was cool and a little dark, but not too dark for reading. There were comfortable chairs set up so you felt free to “settle in” with a copy of the Madison newspaper or that periodical you’d been meaning to read about midieval monasticism, or the latest issue of National Geographic. There are wide windows that look out onto the prairie. There are laptop connections for those who require them. Everything is done in medium wood stainand I feel instantly at home in this library as I do in all other libraries. Books understand me and are able to give me what I require of them, full disclosure with nothing held back.  Later in the month I will spend time in here,browsing and picking and gathering and delighting. No Kindle or Nook will ever feel like a good heavy hardback in my hands, its pages smelling of age, the dark type jumping off the page while the plastic protective covering crinkles as I open it. Pressing a button to hilite or moving my finger to underline will never share space with the slow romance born of pencil and wetted thumb, of paper clips, and post-it notes and neon marker. They may digitize all printed material and it will save a billion trees. And that will be a good thing for the world. But I kind of hope I will be dead by then. Because nothing will ever replace The Book.

Books and I go way back. I learned to read at the age of 3 and there is not a single time in my memory where I can remember not knowing what the words on a page said. My father likes to tell the story of when he would be reading me a story and would be tired, he would often skip a page. I would never fail to call him on it saying, “No daddy, you skipped the part where the princess finds the flower, now you have to start again.”  I read picture books, then Disney storybooks, Books on tape, and the Dr. Seuss dictionary. I read Richard Scarry’s ABC’s so many times my mother said I was bored with the alphabet by the time I got to kindergarten.I read nature books, atlases,prayer books from my grandmother’s house,newspapers, and fashion magazines from my mother’s beauty shop. I read books under my desk in elementary school and got in trouble for it. I read books inserted into my history books in junior high during silent reading time and during this socially awkward time became friends with Anne Shirley,Jo March,and Sherlock Holmes. In high school I went whole months reading nothing but books on World War 2, or biographies, or R.L Stine teen thrillers. I read at least a book a week if not more. One summer I read “Gone with the Wind” in three days. A family friend once described me as a “strange child” because instead of wanting to play around the house with the other children who came to visit I would often be found curled up in a  corner of an empty room, reading. My grandmother would take my books and put them up ona  high shelf, certain that I would strain my eyes, she would shove me out the door into the sunshine to play. So I started tucking my paperbacks into the waistband of my pants around my back to fool her and would go outside and set myself up in the branches of a tree or on the basement steps until she called us in for dinner. I read books with a flaslight, my back up against the bathtub in the bathroom late at night after bedtime. I read on the walk home from school(dangerous) and on the schoolbus(nerdy).And in college? Well, I majored in Religious Studies and Classical Civilization. That’s all we did in that major was read. We read history,epic poetry,philosophy,theology,sociology, anthropology,and more ancient drama than you ever knew had been translated. And of course the Bible.

Books have pretty much consumed whole chunks of my life. There were times when having a book was the only thing that kept me sane. Long train or plane rides, standing in line at the DMV,waiting to use the computer at a crowded internet cafe in London? Give me a copy of the Oresteia or the biography of Audrey Hepburn and I’m okay. I have been horrified to see that my beloved copy of “The Aeneid” had cracked in half along the spine one day. I had hi-lited,notated, and underlined the crap out of that book during the five years I had spent in undergrad.For a while I tried to resurrect it through the help of staples and rubber bands but page by page it deteriorated. To have to consign that volume to the garbage can was heartrending. When I was going through my divorce I read voraciously. A lot of “Getting over your divorce” type stuff but also a lot of poetry: Rilke,Millay, and Tagore for the big emotions, the Beat poets for reason and renewal. And always, always the Russians. My beloved Russians who I believe have shaped me like no authors ever have. Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Anton Chekhov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: these four were like the older brothers I never had. And then after leaving college, there was reading for pleasure, Oscar Wilde, French Adventure novels like “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and “Waverly”, and James Michener. And I must confess there were ” guilty pleasure books” that I hit from my friends eyes by hiding them under my bed, books by Candace Bushnell,Sophie Kinsella, and Agatha Christie. I have read “Bridget Jones Diary” about 18 times and it still makes me laugh out loud. Books have been the meter of my life and I can recall what I was reading when I met someone or what they were reading when I met them. I can remember people’s favorite books years after they’ve told me. I am as thrilled when I am introduced to a new author the same way I am thrilled with a new acquaintance. You can see how the fact that Holy Wisdom had a fully stocked library left my head spinning with joy.

The first friends I spied were the Liberation Theologists. They were reclining with the Progressive Christian thinkers and I gathered Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg up with Oscar Romero and Peter Maurin. Next to receive an invitation to my chair were the monastics and the early thinkers. “Excuse me Julian of Norwich? St. John of the Cross? I was wondering if you’d mind if I took you out sometime? I’d like us to get to know each other better”. And finally, I invited Thict nacht Nanh and the Dalai Lama to spend the night. They don’t judge me for my poly-amory. I can be fickle with my books, throwing one aside for another more exciting prospect. I often have attacks of conscience and will go back to the first book when I’ve finished the second. Staying at the Monastery is a dicey propsect for someone with book-lust as I will not be able to read all the books I want to in the time I have here. Books will have to be wisely chosen. Already I am anxious wondering how many I will be able to read before I have to leave here. It’s probably a good thing Holy Wisdon did not tell me the extant of their collection or I might have begged to stay in the program longer just in order to make it through. The library here has an advantage for me though in that it is unfrequented by more than two people or so at any one time of day. So, in the time I have spent here so far, it is a semi-private affair. I can come and haut it how I please and when, chatting with my old friends about this and that, picking them up off the shelf and rudely reading their back covers before placing them in their proper space.Virginia Woolf pled for a “Room of One’s Own.” That may have been well and good for Ms. Woolf. But I want a Library.

And still more…

August 5, 2011

The next session with Claudia, centered on forgiveness. Specifically, how to forgive my ex-husband for the pain he put me through in my marriage and subsequent divorce. I wanted to forgive him but I couldn’t seem to do it. And it was making me angry, sad, and bewildered. I didn’t think about him or our marriage very much anymore, if truth be told. I was far too busy in my life these days. I was prepparing to leave for the Peace Corps. I had my old job back-a job i enjoyed. I had a dog, new hobbies, new friends, and even a new man in my life. More than enough going on to keep me from dwelling in the past. I had had a huge amount of therapy during the separation, the divorce, and the months afterwards. My therapist thought I had progressed at a healthy pattern and even gave me the go-ahed for my new relationship. I should have been in a  good head space. Well, a good head space didn’t mean I was in a good heart-space. I kept having daydreams about setting fire to my ex husbands house(not usually with him in it), or knifing the tires of his car, or sicking the IRS on him. Sometimes I would re-imagine the day I left and how I should have taken all the electronics and sold them out of the trunk of the car. Or maybe taken all his nice suits and his fancy watches and his cufflinks and given them to a men’s shelter. Or sold his music collection-including his amps, his super-expensive drum set,and all his Beatles memorabilia- on amazon.com or craigslist. Or just made a huge pile of all his stuff on the front line, dig a fire trough, filled it with gasoline and then set it on fire using his vintage guitar as a torch.In my defense, rarely did I fantasize about wanting  to do any physical harm to the man himself. Most of the time. Mainly I just wanted to hurt him so that he could feel even a tiny fraction of what I had felt when I had found the emails from his girlfriends, or when I had found out he wasn’t going to therapy after all when he said he was, or when  I was faced with the enormous underwater glacier of his addiction when I had thought only the tip was the extant of the problem. I had done everything I could to save that marriage, to make it work, and he had done little to nothing to meet me halfway. Those were the angry times. There were also sad times when I would ruminate on the good times we had shared together-the vacations, the little rituals, the shared language we’d developed as a couple-I would get sad thinking what a tragedy it had all been, like a bizarre modern day Greek play. I wanted a Deus Ex machina to come out of the clouds and take me away from this ridiculous stage where nothing was what I thought it was and everything was shocking and scary that had once been safe and secure. And then the sadness would pass and I would find myself enraged all over again. And unable to forgive. I didn’t feel good about it.

Some would say I had every right to be angry and even more right to deem my ex husband patently unforgive-able. After all, he had stuck me with thousands of dollars of bills, he had taken the house, the car, and most of what was in the house. He had refused to pay me back any of the money I had spent putting him through law school, claiming that since I was the one ‘who wanted out” then I could just deal with being poor. Through lawyers I learned he wanted me to come home, to just “drop this whole thing”. He wanted me to continue as his wife even though he had no intention of seeking treatment for his addiction or in truly reforming. In his words he asked me if we couldn’t just “forget about the past and move forward from here.” Move forward into what? I wondered. It was like being locked into some off-Broadway version of a Dantean Hell. Was I angry because I couldn’t forgive or could I not forgive because I was angry? My therapist had recently gone in for another battle with cancer and I was out a therapist for a while while he went through chemo…so Claudia’s appearance was a breath of fresh air in that sulpherous smog I felt I breathed when I thought of my ex. 

Claudia listened patiently as I mused over whether my inability to forgive was affecting my life. The decision to leave my marriage had been an excrutiatingly difficult one. I had agonized over whether or not it was the right thing to do for a year before I actually decided to go ahead with the decision. I had been wracked by feelings of failure,guilt,and shame. Even though it had been my husband who was a serial cheater and an addict, it was I who felt I was abandoning the marriage when I finally decided to leave. I had a lot of guilt over my leaving him partly because he was an addict. I felt like I was running out on him when in effect, he didn’t want help and refused to acknowledge his addiction or to seek help. I already knew from counseling that I had done everything I could within the marriage, ands then I had done it again, and then a third time before leaving. In the end, the addiction had spiraled and spilled over into abuse and it became a situation where if the marriage was to live then I would have to die, emotionally speaking. I wasn’t willing to make that kind of sacrafice for a covenantal relationship in which I was the only one keeping the covenant. But I carried a lot of guilt, shame, and anger for a long time after leaving. Much of those feelings had been addressed in therapy and worked through. The one area that had been left untouched was the spiritual aspect of things.

I wanted to be able to forgive my ex-husband for all the pain he had put me through. I felt like it was the right thing to do. Unfortunately, no matter how I tried I seemed to only feel rage or sadness whenever I thought of him and our former life together. He had taken from me something very special, the utmost trust I could have placed in one person, and abused it. I had trusted him and puit my faith in him, in our marriage, and he had dissapointed me grievously. I wanted to see him as a hurting soul, as a person in need of something that I could never give. I wanted to be able to, as the Dalai Lama says, “Imagine him as a 5 year old child” in my attempt to see him as a person who was very wounded and who might never find peace, and to send him light and love and to only think good thoughts when I thought of him. I wanted to  forgive him for the injury he had done to me. But I just couldn’t, no matter how hard I wanted to, no matter what hoops I put my mind and spirit through, no matter what books and meditations I read. I felt “less than” because I couldn’t forgive him.Like there was something wrong with me, that unless I could work this out, I was doomed to be unbalanced in my quest for spiritual wholeness.Claudia helped me explore the idea that maybe it was too soon for forgiveness, just yet. Maybe I needed more time to process all that rage and sadness before I could empty my heart and be open to filling it up with forgiveness. To forgive myself first for not being able to save my husband from himself or for me not being able to save our marriage. Having gone through her own relationship struggles Claudia sympathized with my wish to seek that “cool spring in the heart of the fire”. She understood my need to be “right with the Universe” in the balance of things regarding my divorce. But she also knew that these things take time…and they take Universe time, not “me” time. Claudia helped me to understand that the Universe didn’t require me to forgive my ex husband now…maybe someday…but it was okay not to right now. No pressure. Baby steps. The Universe is infinitely patient. As long as you are willing to take the steps to forgive…The Universe  will always be there at the forgiveness table waiting for you to sit down. No matter how long it takes.

 

More guidance

August 3, 2011

My mother was convinced she had found the answer to her spiritual quest in her faith in the Catholic Church. The Catholic faith brought her joy and peace. It provided her a touchstone for her life and a lodestone for her family when things got rough. The Catholic Church was the symbol of stability and security in a changing world and she tried desperately to pass that on to her children, as she believed a good mother should.  She took it very personally as a failure of  hers as a mother that I was not satisfied with the answers the Church provided to me in my adolescent years. She was devastated when I stopped going to Mass in college and instead took up with a Protestant youth group. She was hurt when I chose to marry outside the faith and to be married outside the church. In some ways I think she saw it as a rejection of the family, of her, of everything she held dear and believed to be true and real. And I, in my rebellious and searching years, I did not have the language to explain it to her.

I remember my mother growing angry with my grandmother when she would forgive our bad behavior as children or when she would give us treats or reward us even when we had done something we shouldn’t have. My mother was unfailingly unyielding when it came to our antics and would follow misbehavior with swift punishments to teach us to respect property,authority,ourselves.I remember my grandmother telling my mother to relax, that there was no badness in the child-mischief maybe, but no badness-that there was a difference and couldn’t my mother see that? My mother would get us ready for church with the precision of a militaery drill and would make sure we genuflected, sat,stood,kneeled,sang,opened a missalette, and said what we should say when we were supposed to say it. We were enrolled in church choir whether we wanted to sing or not. We were taken to every carnival,Feast day,Saints Day,Adoration known to mankind. It was dizzying during Lent or Easter or Christmas when I felt like parts of my week were entirely taken up by Catholicism and what to do when.  

Conversely, My grandmother urged participation but never forced it and I would spend whole Masses with my grandmother staring at the flowers in front of the statue of the Virgin or imagining myself as an altar-girl. My grandmother’s house had  a small prayer book, a Bible, and a small statue of Mary in the living room. In the dining room the Infant of Prague stood royally under his plastic dome so he wouldn’t get dusty, while a picture of Pope John Paul the II and a couple of crucifixes with palms stuck behind them monitored our comings and goings out the front and backdoors.In the kitchen there was a church calendar with the saints days marked off and  a candle lit during times of trial or accident. In my home faith was 90 percent of the time something we practiced out in the world. In my grandmother’s house, faith was a private matter. I know they were both doing what they thought was the right thing in regards to faith and the rearing of children. But you can guess which of these approaches to faith made us happiest as children.

Claudia helped me tease out some of the frustration I had felt over the years, some of the anger, I had felt for my Mother and her struggles to “keep me in the fold” over the years. What it meant when she wouldn’t acknowledge my membership in the protestant church or when she would make comments about my “lack of faith” in times of struggle in my personal life. It wasn’t her being mean( even though I feel she could have gone about it less clumsily) or deliberately trying to be obtuse. It wasn’t about her supposed lack of respect for me or my feelings. What it was about was the idea that I was refuting all the work she had done over time, work she felt was done for my own good, to help me and guide me in my life. What I would see as searching and questioning, looking for meaning and fulfillment in my life…she saw as me throwing away the fourth leg of a perfectly good table. You could still place things upon it, but now it would always lean perilously to one side. Her child was that table and the other legs were Emotional, Mental, and Physical Well-being. She had made, through my upbringing, a steady piece of work.

My father, a baptized Catholic and practicing agnostic with theology shaped by his time in the Vietnam War, had never been particularly religious. Though he didn’t exactly impede my mother’s attempts at catechism, he wasn’t as supportive as he might have been. His idea of a good joke was to throw a question at us while we were studying our catechism or had just returned from church, something along the lines of, “So…who did the kids of Adam and Eve marry?” or “How does a man live inside a whale for 3 days anyway?”. Good questions for a teenager, not so much a seven year old. He went to church with us as a family only  on Christmas and Easter and he dutifully attended his children’s baptisms,communions, and confirmations but he made it clear that to attend was never his choice. I know it hurt my mother that he couldn’t extend himself to give her that one hour a week she asked him for but she was always magnaminous of my father’s own faith journey. She never let us criticise him for his choice not to embrace his birth tradition and would pray for him fervently every Sunday right before Mass started that my father  would find peace and allow God to enter his heart as we sat in the pews.  One of his favorite things to say to us was, “Remember, the Bible was written by Man and interpreted by Man.” and ” Religion was responsible for many of the evils of this world.”,as we headed out the door early Sunday morning. Thinking back on it, nothing my father said was untrue. The questions he asked us were good, valid, theological queries. The statements he made were unarguable. The problem was not in his beliefs. If he didn’t want to be a participatory Catholic, that didn’t really bother us as children since we had a whole lot of extended family who were. We just took it as a matter of course that my father just didn’t go to church and that was just how it was. The problem was, we never knew what his beliefs were. He never answered that question. All I knew was that believed in God and he left the teaching about religion to his children  to other people. Effectively, mother had raised us in the faith all on her own. And now, in rejecting that Catholicsm, in my mother’s world view, I was deliberately throwing myself off-balance. It didn’t seem to make any sense to her and she couldn’t chalk it up to anything other than a complete and total combination of  rebeliousness,stubborness, and foolishness.

 

 Claudia asked me if my mother’s view towards the faith had changed any since I had hit my thirties and my mother had grown older. I thought about that for a moment. And it was so. My mother became a grandmother 5 years ago and since then I remarked I had noticed a softening, not terribly so, but yet there was a telling thaw. Claudia remarked that perhaps the lack of responsibility in her grandchildren compared to her children was an occasion of the change in my mother’s understanding of her faith. Having raised all her children to adulthood and finding herself more alone after they had all left home, Claudia posited that my mother had suddenly perhaps had time for the first time in many years to examione her faith on a different level. I supposed that could be true. Perhaps the softening I was witnessing was the beginning of her entering a different understanding of her faith and this new time in her life. It was not unusual, Claudia said, for this to happen and this , empty-nest time,was a common time for it to happen to women.  Could it be that my mother was becoming akin to my grandmother in her view of her faith and what it meant in her life? That was worth a thought. We do the best we can with what we have, when we have it. Was my mother just doing the best she could with what she had? Did my grandmother do much the same? I am led to believe that yes, my grandmother was as much a martinet when my mother and her siblings were young as my mother had been with us. This striving for goodness in their children, the only way they knew how, how could I fault them for that? Wouldn’t I do the same for my own child? Wouldn’t I try to inbue in them the same sense of family, tradition, morals, and values that had led me through my life and had given me aplace to turn to in times of struggle? My mother’s great grandparents had leftPolandat a time when Catholics were persecuted for worshipping in their churches. My grandmother had relatives who had seen priests being shot in the street by Soviet soldiers for baptizing babies during the Cold War. This was about more than just faith for the women of my family, this was about survival. I decided to, finally, cut my mother some slack. She had her journey to make and I had to let her make it. If she was coming into another understanding, then that was wonderful for her. If she would always remain in the place I had known her to be in my childhood, if that gave her joy and peace, then so be it. It is not my journey to make.

Spiritual Guidance

August 3, 2011

Claudia is my spiritual guide. Not in a  Jim Morrison/Naked Indian kind of way, though. Although Claudia  is a bit Carly Simon-esque with her ripped jeans and Birkenstocks, her dark hair piled on her head, vintage looking glasses hanging off her nose. She looks more like an early 70’s guitar player than a gifted psychoanalyst,yoga practitioner,mother,and spiritual guide. Claudia has done work in addiction therapy, she leads spiritual retreats, and has become an Oblate with her base her at Holy Wisdom Monastery. I will explain what an Oblate is later. Claudia specializes in eco-concious Christianity and the role of the Feminist in Christianity. And she is a total badass and when I am 50 I want to be her. Claudia and I have been working together these past three weeks in one-on-one sessions, 1 day a week, 1 hour at a time. In our sessions we discuss my relationship with God, my views on my experience here, and what the future holds for me in terms of my spirituality. Holy Wisdom provides these sessions with Claudia at no cost to me.I like Claudia. She is funny and fun, she is wise and patient, and insightful. And she has been flawless in executing that task of all those whose job it is to probe the human heart: she makes me ask myself the tough questions and she makes me look inside myself for the answers to those questions.

We started out talking about my fight with God and all the stuff  I discussed in my previous posts. Having gone through therapy pre and post my divorce I was used to therapist-speak and the dynamic of the relationship. Claudia and I comfortably settled into the time we had together with her asking me about my life up until this summer and why I had come to Holy Wisdom. The next session we dug in a  little deeper, Claudia letting me lead the way with the shovel, and we ended up discussing my relationship with my parents and their view of faith and the role that religion played in their lives. And then in later sessions we would discuss my marriage and divorce and what that had done to impact my faith and whether or not it was still affecting it. We would also discuss where I would go from here in regards to my faith journey and how I would use the knowledge gleaned from our sessions to inform my life for better.

I am somewhat of a riminator. I chew thoughts like a cow chews a particular piece of cud. I am getting better at not doing that so much with the not-so-great moments of my life..what’s done is done is my attitude for most things. I try very hard to be a good person and not hurt people by word or action. If I do, I try to make amends. It’s a good system and it keeps me from obsessing. But the big questions in my life do get chewed on quite a bit. I tend to think about them when I am on the train or waiting in line at the DMV…or when I am falling asleep at night. I find them entering my thoughts, the questions so visible they remind me of “Donald in Mathmagic-land.” If someone were to ask me what my inner voice says most of the time I would say the following three phrases most often pop up: “Ugh, I am so fat.” or “Where is God?” or “I love Matt”. Usually its one of these three. I try not to think too hard about things I can’t change or “what if” type situations because it just makes me nuts. The point is, I am a contemplative person. For better or for worse, I think about things. A lot. Probably more than is good for me. I have often thought it would be good for me to take up some form of manual labor if only to be forced out of my head more often than I currently am with work, yoga, etc. So there’s a lot of thoughts flying around in there regarding religion and spirituality and the universe and all that. Enter Claudia. She didn’t exactly take me out of my head but she didn’t exactly keep me in it either. She sort of …well, organized my brain. Like cleaning a closet, she had me take everything out regarding faith, religion, etc and she stood there with a labelmaker while I decided what to keep, toss, or sell.   It was astounding how all these thoughts that I suppose had always been in  the back of my brain came to the surface the longer we chatted.  It was pretty amazing what came out. As a friend of mine, a clinical psychologist would say, “I think everyone could use a little therapy”. Not that this was technically therapy…but it was about discussing what was affecting my ability to find God. So we dug deeper.

Talking with Claudia, I discovered that the approach my grandmother took to Catholicism was very different than the approach my own mother took to the same religion. And that it was that schism(pardon the religious irony) that had created a large part of the crisis if faith I had in the dozen years between leaving home and my grandmother’s death. Claudia led me down some pretty intense roads, with me scrutinizing exactly how my Mother may have viewed and experienced her faith and then conversely how my grandmother experienced hers. I have explained in previous posts how my grandmother’s expression of faith was one rooted in understanding and acceptance. Her vision of God was one of Supreme Love, a sunburst that took in every person around it and warmed them in its rays. Jesus and Mary, for my grandmother, were like Santa and Mrs. Claus. Always a lap to sit on and a piece of cake for a little girl. And you were good for goodness’s sake. After all,you wouldn’t dare do anything as a  child to dissappoint that lovely old couple at the North Pole, now would you?  And if you did do something bad, why, you would feel it in your heart and then you would try very hard to never do it again. Claudia and I discussed the idea that perhaps my grandmother’s view of her faith had undergone many revolutions over time, informed by her life’s events and the experiences she had with her church, other people, and her own bouts with self-exploration. The idea came to me that perhaps my grandmother had started out much like my own mother was I was a little girl and that over time, her understanding of her faith grew into the Faith I had seem demonstrated over time. Time, in other words, had polished the small bit of coal-earthy and not very yielding-and through many revolutions of the heart had turned it into something of great value.

My mother’s view on the other hand seemed to be more Rule and Judgement based. Less wiggle room for screwups, a God to be feared, a Jesus to look askance at with the question always, “Am I doing this right?” My mother had gone to catholic school before Vatican 2 and her and her classmates view of their treatment at the hands of the Order that taught at their school was an experience in strictness, discipline, and obedience. The rules were enforced with no argument or pleas for mercy entertained by the nuns and priests intent on raising the children of the Catholic community to be “good soldiers of Christ” and to not ask questions of their superiors. Very harsh in a small childs’ formative years and guaranteed to leave a mark not easily eraseable, they definately left a scratch on her psyche. Not that she was ever abused or mistreated by them, but more that that was the way it was done back then and people encouraged and expected it of their parochial educators. The simple explanation of my mother’s rulebook of faith was, “Trust the Church and all her representatives, don’t ask questions or argue, and nothing bad will happen to you.” Needless to say, having internalized this at a very young age and having had it ingrained in her for all of her childhood, my mother did not view her faith as an ever-changing thing but as more of a monolith that would stand unchanging for all time. She did not brook questions very well and saw my early wonderings as a lack on her part in my upbringing. If she had done a better job of raising me in the faith, I think she may have wondered, I wouldn’t be so disobedient and willfull, I wouldn’t have asked so many questions or been so unsatisfied with the answers.

Today we weeded the rooftop garden. The other day we weeded to upper vegetable garden. A lot of weeding goes on here at the monastery. The weeds, like the green beans, just keep coming and coming. Weeding is a contemplative activity. There you are, squatting or sitting on your side with a tool and a bucket(or just your hands) picking out plant after plant until they are all gone. There are days when my shoes become caked with mud and my nails crusted with dirt. I have encountered large spiders while clipping the delicious sounding but gross weed,garlic mustard. I continuously swat mosquitos and flies away in the humidity. One day I wrestled with a mullin weed for what seemed like an eternity. that weed, as tall as I was, did NOT want to let go of its hold on the earth! But weeding is alright as a way to spend an afternoon. When its done you can look at a row of lettuce and think, “There!” and go off to wash up with the satisfaction of a job well done. While weeding today, the volunteers and I discussed the difference between “action as a result of you belief in something” and “your belief in something informing your actions”. It got me to thinking if one was a better way to live than the other.

In a religious framework, the Muslim and the Jewish faith tend to empasize “Orthopraxy”(Right practice) over ‘Orthodoxy”(Right belief) which in many denominations is the way Christianity goes. The short explanation of all of this is: Do I have to believe in a God or Jesus or the Resurrection in order to be a Christian or Can I just live my life according to Christian precepts?Many of my Muslim and Jewish friends say one does not need to technically “believe” in Allah/YHWH in order to practice their faith as long as they are faithful to the practice.That their practice “outs” their belief. In many Muslim/Jewish understanding of faith, it’s less important what you believe and more about how you live your life in community. Or, going back to an earlier post when I blogged about my Jewish studies professor…If living as a good Jew makes him a good Jew then does living as a Christian make me a good Christian? Does believing in God matter if we do what we believe God/the Universe/Brahman/Imana wants us to do in this life? It’s kind of a big deal. It’s a big deal because its the crux of why many people have such a hard time with religion. I can’t begin to answer those questions in regards to Muslims or Jews but I will take a stab at the Christian angle of things.

Question: If I can be a good person on my own and teach my children to be good and participate in my community for the good of others, then why do I need to be a member of a church? Why define myself as a (fill in the denomination) if I don’t share the precepts of belief with (blanks)? I know many of those who subscribe to the conservative or evangelical movement of Christianity will tell you that Orthodoxy is a must in order to be a good Christian. That the Orthodoxy of the Christian religion is essential and that to question basic precepts of the faith(the Resurrection, the existence of God, the life and ministry of Jesus) is the same as not being a believer at all. There are self-identified Christians who say that Orthopraxy(Loving the Essential Good at the Heart of the Universe,living in community and solidarity as Jesus expressed a wish for us to do, and living the Gospel of inclusion and kindness everyday) is fundamental to Chrisitianity and if you do not do those things, belief is immaterial. Both systems have inspired people to do great things and to work for the uplift of their fellow human beings. But both have also been responsible for a fair amount of condemnation and just plain laziness. And, unfortunately,both camps are in disbelief of the other.

I have been hesistant to call myself a Christian in the past because it seems that what that means these days is that I get immediately labeled as intolerant, exclusive, hateful, weird,and anti-progressive. Nothing could be farther from the truth and in their defense, most of the (Orthopraxic)people I know who identify themselves as Christian are kind and loving people who do good things in the world and love all people. And I really mean that-all people. All people. Every kind of person. Really. Other people(Orthodoxic), more conservative or evangelical peoples, seem to be the same way insofar as it agrees with their view of the world and their personal reality. They are kind and loving people who because they were raised in a certain time or place or because they believe in the words in the Bible as they are written on a page or transmuted by a scholar living hundreds of years before, can’t seem to like all the people.They love all people, they just don’t seem to like them very much or want them around as they are-they seem to want them to be different. Not gay, not an unwed mother, not Jewish or Muslim. Or they try and make them believe their Truth in a formalized way.

 Another difference I find in dealing with Orthopraxic Christians vs. Orthodoxic Christians is the idea of belief informing faith or vice versa. Orthodoxic Christians believe so strongly in the big three(Resurrection,God with a capital “G”, and the life and ministry of Jesus) that it seems to obscure some other very important things about Christianity. Like that there’s room for everybody at the table. Like that there is no real Biblical evidence that homosexuality is wrong-FYI, Jesus never talks about it. Like that women are equal to men-Jesus does talk about that. Fundamentally, what is forgotten is so simple and yet so huge. What is forgotten is that when it comes down to it, when you are faced with a  decision about your fellow human beings, love should be the measure of your judgement. Love. In letting BELIEF with a capital “B” become so all-consuming Orthodoxic Christians are forgetting the greatest commandment: To love God and to love your neighbor. There’s no caveat here. There’s no “but” at the end of that sentence. To ultimately try and treat our fellow humans with no judgement or blame in our hearts. Those qualities inasmuch as they may allow us to live in a peaceful world, are God’s to take care of.We are too small to use those qualities wisely all the time. The Gospel is not fear-based. It is love-based. Love God and Love your neighbor. All your neighbors, every single one of them as you do your own self. What would we do if we loved our neighbors as we did our own selves? Feed them, clothe them,make sure they had clean water and medical care. We would educate them, comfort them when they were sick, and help them find work. Whatever you would do for yourself…isn’t that good enough for another?

What I feel we have here, as Paul Newman said so eloquently,is “A failure to communicate’. I’m not letting Orthopraxic Christians off the hook either. Orthopraxic Christians frequently do not like to call themselves Christians unless they are amongst each other. They don’t want to be lumped in with “those people”. But if you consider yourself a Christian than you are, by definition, a follower of Jesus and his teachings. You believe in the idea of community as Jesus upheld it and the uplifting of humankind as put forth in his teachings.You may not have the same idea of God or any idea, you may not believe Jesus bodily rose from the dead or if there is a Holy Spirit other than the spirit of love that exists in all people.You may not view the idea of a faith community/church/meeting as something up your alley.And if you are an Orthopraxic Christian that is okay by you. My question is: How will anyone know you are a Christian unless you say something? How will people know that there is another way unless you stand up and be counted? How will you live your practice with no support from others who share your fight and your love? Why are you so afraid to identify yourselves? It’s very unnerving for people to think of saying something like, “I believe gay people should have civil rights because I am a Christian and that is what my faith teaches me?” or “I am a Christian and I believe my faith teaches me to work for universal healthcare?” It’s all very mystifying for me at this stage of my life. If there are people who use Christianity as smokecreen for their own failings and prejudices than why can’t other Christians use their faith as a signal fire? What are we so afraid of?   How does your practice inform your beliefs?

Paul, the groundskeeper, has commented on seeing a “Theology of Love” in the stewardship of the land. The sisters believe in a God that is comprised fundamentally of “two loving arms and a soft breast with which to rest on”. My grandmother used to say that when it came down to it, only Love matters. Understanding love, Healing Love, Accepting Love. If the greatest commandment isn’t enough for a Christian, if they need to pick apart everything and live a theology out of context and time, then there needs to be people like Paul and the Sisters and my grandmother if only to welcome those who have seen the signal beacon and want to use it to warm all of humanity.