A friend with a life-long career in nursing and educating medical professionals recently said that rejoining the post-vaccine world would be akin to returning from war.
And of course everyone is returning from both the same and different war, and mostly at the same time. I’ve been thinking about that article going around on the pandemic phenomenon of “languishing,” and how there seems to be a pretty good amount of anxiety about things “returning to normal.”
It’s hard to hope again, or even to know what to hope for. It’s hard to want our “old lives” back, to gear up for all the human interaction and stimulation and overwhelm that has fallen away. Or at least has become a different kind of overwhelming.
Like always, I’ve been turning to poetry because it’s my emotional home. And there’s something helpful in Galway Kinnell’s poem, “St. Francis and the Sow” that’s been on my mind.
I’ve also been working on this little collection of jewelry pieces about hope, and yet most of the pieces are a bit dark. Then I realized it was akin to what Kinnell writes, specifically about what he calls “reteaching a thing its loveliness:”
“The bud stands for all things, even for those things that don’t flower, for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing; though sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness, to put a hand on its brow of the flower and retell it in words and in touch it is lovely until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;”
I believe that we are having to reteach our hearts their loveliness, their ability to love, to hope through their exhaustion. And to be witnesses for each other as we do that. That doesn’t look beautiful or sparkly; I think it’s quiet and a bit somber, and that’s okay.
The rest of Kinnell’s poem about the sow is so wonderful:
“…as Saint Francis put his hand on the creased forehead of the sow, and told her in words and in touch blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow began remembering all down her thick length, from the earthen snout all the way through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail, from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine down through the great broken heart to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them: the long, perfect loveliness of sow.”
The long, perfect, loveliness of sow. St. Francis was an extraordinary witness to earthly beauty in weird places. I believe that if we can be witnesses to one another, reteaching ourselves our loveliness, we can figure out what comes next.
I recently saw, on a “thoughtfulness and positivity” type of Facebook page, a quotation attributed to C. S. Lewis: “Do not let your happiness depend on something you may lose.” It had a gazillion “likes.” My first thought was how remarkably unhelpful such advice was; my second was that there was no way C. S. Lewis actually wrote that. In fact, he did not.
Well, he did, but only to craft a philosophical position disagreeing with it completely. He actually went further than disagreeing with it; he said that is an impossibility. Much like my gleeful hatred of typos, seeing quotations, and in this case, really meaningful quotations, taken out of context causes me angst. This stuff is important! It’s C. S. Lewis, for Pete’s sake. But really, it is important, and I’ll try to explain why.
Lewis was discussing St. Augustine, and Augustine’s devastation at the death of his friend Nebridius. In response to this suffering, Augustine comes to the conclusion that such pain is the result of loving anything but God. Hence the quotation: “Do not let your happiness depend on something you may lose. If love is to be a blessing, not a misery, it must be for the only Beloved who will never pass away” (C. S. Lewis, “The Four Loves,” p. 110).
But here is Lewis’s initial response to this way of thinking: “Of course this is excellent sense. Do not put your goods in a leaky vessel. Don’t spend too much on a house you may be turned out of. And there is no man alive who responds more naturally than I to such canny maxims. I am a safety-first creature. Of all arguments against love, none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as ‘Careful! This might lead you to suffering.’”
TL;DR He does not actually believe this.
One of the few moments of uncut childhood anguish I can recall my kids experiencing was when one of our cats died. My son Noah was around 9 years old, and I don’t remember him caring about the cat that much. But when I told him that she’d died, he was overcome with a kind of pure, crystalized grief. It was a palpable force. With his sweet face distorted, he cried, “But I loved her!” It wasn’t about the cat. It was one of his first undiluted realizations that you will lose what you love; that your love costs. That it is simply no protection against…anything, really. It was heart-rending.
In the discussion of Augustine, Lewis reminds us that, as Christians, “We follow One who wept over Jerusalem and at the grave of Lazarus…There is no escape along the lines St. Augustine suggests. Nor along any other lines. There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken.”
And then this: “If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell. We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to him; throwing away all defensive armour. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break, so be it” C. S. Lewis, “The Four Loves,” pps. 110-112).
This last line is such a surrender: “So be it.” The reason, or at least one of the reasons that it’s important to get things like this thought process from Lewis right, that we have to see beyond what throw-away quotation someone posts for “likes,” is because people like C.S. Lewis teach us how to live. Their hard-won wisdom is shared so that we can have some chance of managing being human. This matters.
So does this, an excerpt from Mary Oliver’s “In Blackwater Woods:”
She is teaching us how to be human. How lucky we are to be offered such generous help with what, much of the time, can feel breathtakingly difficult. How very lucky.
I used to say that I was grateful that I was drunk enough not to remember being booked at the police station on the night of my DUI. It was Good Friday, 2014. I don’t remember how I got home. I don’t remember how the first person I talked to–my divorce lawyer–found out about the accident. I only remember two things:
When I drove my car into the window of the building I hit, I saw an older Latina woman with a floor mop in her hand, and her face was frozen in fear. I felt sorry for frightening her. And I remember the voice of my friend Ann on the phone the next morning. She’d seen the story of the accident in the newspaper, and she called and said, “Leslie,” her voice containing a well of pain, shock, and compassion. Hearing her voice felt like a hand reaching into the muddy blur of humiliation and terror I’d woken up in, and it remains, to this day, the single greatest act of kindness I can recall.
My rehab counselor laughed the first time I told her that I’d driven my car through a window at a McDonalds. She laughed really hard. We both knew it wasn’t funny, but there’s a very dark humor that permeates addiction and recovery, and her laughter opened up a few molecules of space between me and the accident. Suddenly there was a tiny chink of light. That little fragment of light was enough for me to keep going.
While I don’t remember much of the time after the accident, I do remember the day before. I remember the red wine and the Xanax I used to numb the feelings that came with knowing another woman was living in my former home, the home where my sons lived, in the kitchen where I’d cooked family dinners, in the bedroom I’d painted a warm gold. In the bed I’d slept in, and where I nursed my youngest son in the months after his birth. I felt discarded like a paper doll, with someone new slotted into the life I’d worked so hard to create.
I’d become untethered, which was ultimately to become the thing that gave me back my life, my freedom. But at first it was simply too painful to feel. So I drank, a lot and often. It’s not interesting.
People do all sorts of things to make meaning out of the disasters in their lives, and I’m no different, except I usually have a line from Kurt Vonnegut running in my head that describes most of life’s crises simply as the inevitable accidents that will invariably happen in the very busy place that is earth. Truth be told, that’s a lot closer to how I feel about life, but that doesn’t preclude making meaning out of it.
The meaning of the accident for me will always be this: I had an experience of excruciating suffering and I was given the privilege of surviving; I was given the gift of renewal. The black eyes and bruises from the accident healed. I made reparations. I prayed to be worthy of forgiveness. I learned to live without numbing my pain, minute by minute at first, then hour by hour, then day by day.
The meaning of the accident will always be this: I learned, in my cells and my spirit, that we experience both betrayal and acceptance; both abandonment and assistance, both crucifixion and resurrection. And the crucifixion is never the end. It is never the end. We are always invited into Easter.
I don’t know of a greater gift, a more human lesson, offered in the midst of the most miraculous divinity. I truly believe that the resurrection is for all of us. Jesus didn’t leave Mary Magdalene alone in her weeping. He called her by her name and offered her reassurance. He told her that the crucifixion wasn’t the end; he blessed her with his resurrection and helped her to become new.
Today we get to celebrate this same blessing, and even if it only opens up a tiny fragment of light between us and our pain, sometimes that is enough.
This year I’ve felt (and still feel) that I have nothing to write or say. There’s just too much, and simultaneously too little.
And yet, if we are to be believers (in something, anything), we tend to believe in some version of this: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13).
I remember hearing David Whyte talk about Beowulf, and how there is this unrelenting thrum of struggle that doesn’t end, and then it doesn’t end, and then it still does. not. end. Like this year, this relentlessly horrific year.
Maya Angelou said, “Love keeps the stars in the firmament.” It is a force that powerful. If that is true, perhaps in this season of waiting, it’s enough to close our eyes and just say, “Please.” Please be there, please hold, please last, please help, please sustain.
Here is the rest of the poem that the Maya Angelou line is taken from. I believe it to be true.
“Love builds up the broken wall and straightens the crooked path. love keeps the stars in the firmament and imposes rhythm on the ocean tides each of us is created of it and i suspect each of us was created for it.”
The term “self-care” has long felt problematic to me, in part because things like this are marketed under its name:
This is an example of the various “self-care subscription boxes” that are often advertised on Instagram. Some of the ad copy actually reads, “curated by therapists…,” reinforcing the allure of such items as magical, healing gifts to yourself, when in reality, a plant, for example, is one of the WORST things to give a person in need of self-care. When it is a struggle to brush your own teeth, the absolute last thing you need is another living thing to care for, as this photo of my “indestructible” Victorian Parlor Palms indicates:
Recently, however, I learned a new idea about what self-care is and how to do it. During a talk with my therapist, she asked, “Do you notice how the voice in your head is in charge of the decisions you’re making?”
What she meant was that when one is depressed or anxious, the “voice is your head” can be muddled, fogged-in, scattery, and unreliable. When one is feeling more whole and embodied, that voice feels reliable, functional, clear.
Like most good ideas, this one is simple but powerful. When she said this, I realized that taking care of that voice in my head, making sure as best I could that it stayed healthy and clear, was my responsibility. Almost as if it is an entity separate from me, which sounds weird, but makes sense when you learn the necessity of distancing yourself from your own addled thoughts.
From this perspective, doing things that I know will keep this voice whole and robust becomes more appealing. For example, I hate to shower–disgusting, but true. Unless I am in the ocean, I do not want to get wet. Baths are not even on my radar. I legit do not like to travel for longer than a day because facing an unfamiliar shower is overwhelmingly uncomfortable. [Obviously, I shower, but if you need in-depth info on dry shampoos and/or body wipes, I’m your person].
I’ve tried a lot of things–appealing shower curtains, pleasingly-colored towels, and most recently, eucalyptus in the shower–but these things simply help me enjoy looking at the bathroom, not effortessly integrating a quick shower into my mornings. A few years ago, during one bad depressive episode, I spent a long time thinking about how much I hated having to squeeze the shampoo and conditioner from their containers, and it seemed like a ray of light when I realized that I could buy pump bottles instead.
But showering and all that accompanies it–grooming, paying attention to my body, being comfortable going into the world and not feeling like a troll–is a task that keeps that entity in my psyche feeling strong and in charge. I do not need to LIKE the shower. I will never need to LIKE the shower. But doing it because it’s helpful to the part of me that needs to be in the world as a whole being–that’s self-care.
Removing the idea of forced enjoyment or comfort from the notion of “self-care” feels freeing. It also feels like a choice, something that can look the way I want it to look, not like an Insta ad.
At Blackwater Pond by Mary Oliver
At Blackwater Pond the tossed waters have settled
after a night of rain.
I dip my cupped hands. I drink
a long time. It tastes
like stone, leaves, fire. It falls cold
into my body, waking the bones. I hear them
deep inside me, whispering
oh what is that beautiful thing
that just happened?
Having neither spectacular accomplishments nor grave misfortunes to report, and, to be honest, having exhausted the vein of humorous family anecdotes over the years, I will tell you instead that we are all well and fine, and hope that you are too.
Instead of Srajek family details, which are really much the same as any other family’s day-to-day lives, I offer this story about something that happened to us this time last year, at the start of a long Midwest winter.
In our local paper there used to be a kid’s feature called “Letters to the Editor,” where school kids responded to a question from the editor, and then some responses from each school got published. One week last December, Jacob’s answer to the question “What is the top item on your Christmas list this year?” turned up in the paper. He wrote that since he wanted to be a carpenter when he grew up, he had “always wanted” a carpenter’s plane.
If he didn’t get that, the number two thing on the list was “lots of nice building wood,” a response that makes him sound quainter and less electronically minded than he really is, but, well, he was probably writing what he knew had the best chance of getting published (they’re never too young to play to the crowd).
About a week after his response appeared in the paper, we received a letter in the mail from a woman we did not know. She apologized if we were not the parents of Jacob Srajek, said that she had looked us up in the phone book, and she hoped her writing was not an imposition to us. A clipping of Jacob’s letter was neatly taped to the corner of her own letter, which was printed on paper with a decorative floral border. Continue reading “a heart-felt holiday”→
For Sir on Father’ Day 2017 My love of reading I will always attribute to my mother. It’s my dad who made me a writer.
I still have his copy of Roget’s Thesaurus from his college days and won’t use any other version. When I worked for him as a legal secretary during college breaks, like any word lover, I delighted in learning the legalese, especially hearing it in his voice through the tiny Dictaphone.
That’s not the point of this story though. The real story is about summers on the Jersey Shore when I was little. One summer (I thing it was Ortley Beach), my Dad and I were constructing some sort of sand pile, and the whole time I was telling him some convoluted little kid story. He asked me questions while we packed in the sand, made a little moat, and filled it with water. I can still feel the grainy wet sand against my legs, and the firmness of the sand as we tried to pack in into some kind of tower shape.
But what I remember most is his attention, his presence. That he was there and that he cared enough to listen to my childish babbling. I feel the same today. That he is there.
The thought that this will someday not be true is simply more than I can bear to contemplate.
My father is an exceptional and highly recognized lawyer, which is fitting because he has always been my strongest advocate.
He is currently Of Counsel at a prominent firm in New Jersey, and he mentors several younger lawyers. I hope they know how lucky they are. I have a feeling that they do.
Happy Father’s Day, Sir. You’ve been around for 75 years and lived a whole life before my arrival. But you’ve been my father for all of my 50 years. My forever. My benchmark, my protector, my teacher. I am so proud of you in so many ways, and I hope, despite of all the ridiculous messes I’ve made in my life, that in some small way, you are proud of me too.
Out of respect for your (non) enjoyment of poetry, I have opted not to include a poem with this post. Just this.
It’s been seven years since my first Lenten project: Radical Lent: A Poetic Approach to 40 Days in the Wilderness. In rereading some of those posts for inspiration, it struck me how very much has changed in my life since that time: I am divorced, I am no longer the mother of young children, I’ve fallen into and climbed out of addiction, I’ve lost my license and (sort of) gotten it back, I’ve bought and sold a house, and am now I’m a renter again for the first time in 20 years, I’ve lost a job in academia and found a new one in human services, my relationships with two of the loves of my life (Noah and Jacob) have become very difficult, and I’m exploring new love with an amazing man. Woah.
Choosing to embark on a new Lenten blog, an intentional 40-day practice after all of this time comes out of the realization that I’ve finally started to move from a completely internal mindset to an external one. I’ve learned to pay attention again. And I want so much to pay attention with you! I’ve missed you!
An example of what I mean by being stuck in an internal mindset is that in 2016, I missed the entire spring season. I wasn’t working, I was barely doing anything, barely leaving my home, barely talking to anyone, barely finding a reason to wake up in the mornings, and then one day I drove out with a friend, and the entire world had become green. Months had gone by and the world had shifted from winter to “things mostly green.” I was stunned. I was speechless. I had missed an entire earth shift.
This morning, I was fortunate to be the guest preacher at my home church in Champaign Urbana, McKinley Presbyterian. McKinley is a loving, inclusive place, and Pastor Heidi Weatherford and Associate Pastor Keith Harris work harder than anyone I know to follow the well-known directive to “preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”
The scripture reading today was Matthew 14: 22-33, the story of the storm, when Peter steps out of the boat towards Jesus but becomes fearful and begins to sink. Jesus saves him, and then says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Below is the text of my sermon. Thank you so very much to the wonderful congregation at McKinley for allowing me to offer this testimony.
“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” This question has always struck me as a kind of blow, a slap. “Peter, why didn’t you do better? Why didn’t you listen? Haven’t you been watching, learning, and by the way, did you just miss that whole scene with the loaves and the fishes?”
But perhaps if we consider Jesus’ question to Peter not as a rebuke or a chastisement, but rather as a sincere inquiry, we might hear something like this: “Peter, what happened? What are you afraid of? Where is the conviction, and the belief, and the courage that you had only moments ago?”
Jesus’ question might not actually be, “Why did you doubt me?” but rather, “Why did you doubt you? Why did you doubt your own deep longing, and your desire to step forward towards something you are so very desperate to believe in?”
The poet David Whyte has something of an answer for these questions, and it can be found in his poem, “The Truelove.” As a poet, writer, and highly sought after organizational consultant, Whyte has worked for organizations all over the world bringing poetry and his own form of servant leadership to companies who are trying to do things differently than they have in the past. “The Truelove” was written for a group of nuns who were struggling with the reorganization of the health care company that they ran. So this poem is not simply about romantic love; it is about claiming the work and the life that is rightfully our own.
There is a faith in loving fiercely
the one who is rightfully yours
especially if you have
waited years and especially
if part of you never believed
you could deserve this
loved and beckoning hand
held out to you this way.
I am thinking of faith now
and the testaments of loneliness
and what we feel we are
worthy of in this world.
Years ago in the Hebrides
I remember an old man
who walked every morning
on the grey stones
to the shore of baying seals
who would press his hat
to his chest in the blustering
salt wind and say his prayer
to the turbulent Jesus
hidden in the water
and I think of the story
of the storm and everyone
waking and seeing
yet familiar figure
far across the water
calling to them
and how we are all
preparing for that
and that calling,
and that moment
we have to say yes,
except it will
not come so grandly
but more subtly
and intimately in the face
of the one you know
you have to love
so that when
we finally step out of the boat
toward them, we find
us, and everything confirms
our courage, and if you wanted
to drown you could,
but you don’t
after all this struggle
and all these years
you don’t want to any more
you’ve simply had enough
and you want to live and you
want to love and you will
walk across any territory
and any darkness
however fluid and however
dangerous to take the
one hand you know
belongs in yours.
While there are many beautiful elements in this poem, the one I’d like to call special attention to this morning is the somewhat startling truth that when we step out of the boat towards what we are longing for, towards what we truly desire, despite the fact that everything holds us, if we wanted to drown we could. But why would we want to? Why indeed.
In “Let Your Life Speak,” the Quaker author and educator Parker Palmer, in writing about his own grueling experience with clinical depression, reminds us that in Deuteronomy 30:19, God says, “I set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Therefore choose life.” Palmer asks, “Why do we need such an obvious reminder?”
Because the truth is that we choose the wretchedness of drowning all the time. We just don’t like to think about it. We choose to drown when we withdraw from others, when we retreat into cynicism or learned helplessness, when we numb ourselves into oblivion with whatever our drug of choice might be. We choose drowning when we allow ourselves to believe the lie of our own unworthiness, and when we simply give up because we have lost faith in our power to do something, anything.
We choose to drown when we worry that perhaps God wasn’t really talking to us when God said, “For surely I know the plans I have for you…plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” We choose drowning because it’s easier, and we are creatures of comfort. Yet drowning is a perverse comfort that allows us to expect little from ourselves, and for others to expect little of us. There is no courage in drowning.
And this is a time for courage. It’s not a time to rely on hope alone. Jesus tells the disciples to take heart. He calls Peter out of the boat, and it is an invitation to step towards what he longs for, regardless of the wind and the water. And “The Truelove” is a hopeful, human, joyous, clear-eyed call to claim the love, the work, the life that is rightfully ours, whatever it takes.
For a long time now, I’ve been bewitched by the Gospel message of “good news,” and how that includes desire, longing, and the fulfillment of any type of union for which we are so desperately searching.
It’s just all about love.
“Oh, I’ve loved you from the start, in every single way, and more each passing day. You are brighter than the stars, believe me when I say, it’s not about your scars, it’s all about your heart.” Mindy Gledhill, from the “Anchor” album.
Loving God is so full-bodied, so deliriously full of desire. Why and how do we forget this?
“I’m falling even more in love with you, letting go of all I’ve held onto, I’m standing here until you make me move, I’m hanging by a moment here with you.” Matchbox 20 “Hanging by a Moment.”
God is never going to ask us to move. She’s waiting for us to stand the fuck still and feel. All the shame, and inadequacies, and confusions, and longings. It’s all okay, all required.
“Forgetting all I’m lacking, completely incomplete, I’ll take your invitation, and you’ll take all of me…I’m living for the only thing I know, I’m running and I’m not sure where to go, and I don’t know what I’m diving into, just hanging by a moment here with you.” Matchbox 20
Is there anything more holy? More indicative of the quest?
St. Symeon the Theologian did not believe so. In his poem, “Awaken as the Beloved,” (10th century Byzantine), he writes, “We awaken in Christ’s body/As Christ awakens our bodies/and my poor hand is Christ, He enters/my foot and is infinitely me.
…For if we genuinely love Him,/we wake up inside Christ’s body/where all our body, all over/every most hidden part of it,/is realized in joy as Him,/and he makes us, utterly, real/
and everything that is hurt, everything/that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,/maimed, ugly,/irreparably/damaged, is in Him transformed/and recognized as whole, as lovely/ as radiant in His light/we awaken as the Beloved/in every last part of our body.” (in Roger Housden’s “Ten Poems to Change Your Life Again and Again,” pp. 119-20).
“I looked out the window, and stared at the field, where the blue sky and green were colliding. I looked back at you, and I knew we were sealed, by a faith that has ways of providing, sometimes you get there in spite of the route, losing track of your life and what it’s about, the road seems to know when to straighten right out, the closer you come to Elysium.” Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Elysium”
Our desires and longings for true and richly satisfying lives draw us closer to God. S/he is standing by saying, “What have you been waiting for? For God’s sake!” So much of what we hear and learn does not separate us from God, but draws us closer: love, the desire for union, passion for authenticity in all of our life’s work. To live as if love is already a given. Because it it. These are not things to be left to pop culture or peripheral verbalization. God has already tread this path and She is waiting for us to join her, with everything we have to bring. Everything.
“This heart was almost taken, this heart had a love of its own. This heart was reawakened when you came along…this heart was stranded in the winter, was stuck out in a blizzard with its summer clothes. This heart knows when love comes and when it goes. This heart has heard your laughter, this heart has learned how to smile, this heart’ll be your true believer if you’ll stay awhile.” Nanci Griffith, “This Heart”